Story last updated at 9:20 a.m. Sunday, October 31, 2004
Save the submersible
Maritime archaeologist identifies decaying sub in waters off Panama as Civil War-era cousin of H.L. Hunley, wants to rescue it for history
BY BRIAN HICKS Of The Post and Courier Staff Every day, the tides uncover the football-shaped iron hulk, left to rot just off the beach of a deserted island near Panama.
The locals call it a death machine, and the ebb and flow of the Pacific creates the ghostly illusion that it is endlessly diving and re-surfacing.
When the maritime archaeologist James Delgado arrived in Panama on a cruise ship in 2001, locals told him about the ship, claiming it was a Japanese sub abandoned after World War II.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY JAMES DELGADO Marine archaeologist and maritime historian James Delgado examines the Sub Marine Explorer off the coast of Panama. He found the Civil War-era Union sub in 2001 near one of the Pearl Islands.
Faced with the prospect of another boring bird-watching tour, he hired a boat to the remote island for a peek. There, in the surf of Isla San Telmo, Delgado found a forgotten chapter in submarine history, a Civil War-era cousin of the H.L. Hunley.
"It looked like something out of '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea'," Delgado said. "At first I thought it looked like a Holland submarine, but it was much smaller."
Delgado climbed around the sub, and was struck by its strange construction. Some of its design elements appeared to date to 1900, but the strange iron bars between its two hulls seemed like they'd been forged in the 1850s.
A few years later, Delgado got his answers. He has identified the wreck as the Sub Marine Explorer, a submersible built in New York in the waning days of the Civil War. Turned down by the U.S. Navy, its builder took the sub to Central America to make a fortune in pearl diving.
Before it was over, the sub's builder made another important -- and deadly -- discovery about deep-water diving.
Delgado says the submarine, which in some ways is even more advanced than the Hunley, is a unique maritime treasure that should be saved. Now he's looking for a way to rescue the fallen fish-boat from the waters of Central America.
Ideally, he says, the Explorer should be brought to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, where it could benefit from the cutting-edge technology being used to save the Hunley.
"I can't imagine a better place for it," Delgado said after a tour of the North Charleston lab earlier this week. "If the funding could be found, it would be a great fit."
The two 1860s subs have much in common: design elements, similar conservation problems and, perhaps most notably, tragic pasts.
A PECULIAR HISTORY UNFOLDS
Delgado could not get the sub out of his mind.
After returning to Canada, where he is executive director of the Vancouver Maritime Museum, he sent photos of the boat to every maritime historian he knew, and he knows a lot of them. Delgado, co-host with Clive Cussler of National Geographic International's "The Sea Hunters," has been in the shipwreck business for decades, and was formerly maritime historian for the U.S. National Park Service.
For a long while, however, none of his contacts could offer much advice about the fat little sub. One friend mentioned it looked like the Intelligent Whale, a Civil War-era sub, and that made Delgado think: could it be that old?
Then, one day last year, Rich Wills, a Navy archaeologist, said the sub resembled drawings he'd seen of the Sub Marine Explorer, built for the U.S. Navy during the Civil War by a German immigrant and engineering whiz kid named Julius Kroehl.
Delgado got the drawings and any doubt he had melted away. He had his sub. The final confirmation was found in the article accompanying the drawings in the 1902 journal. It said the sub had been abandoned off Panama in 1869.
This research is the final chapter of a long, intriguing story...
Kroehl emigrated to America in 1838, where he studied to become an engineer. He took to the work like a duck to water, and by 1845 had patented a flange-bending machine for ironwork. More than a decade later, while blasting away at a reef causing problems for ships in the East River channel, Kroehl hired Van Buren Ryerson, who had crafted a pressured diving bell, to help. Kroehl would remember the bell and its name, Submarine Explorer.
Delgado says that in 1861 Kroehl became the first inventor to offer the U.S. Navy a submarine to sneak into Southern ports and attack from beneath the surface. Officials instead chose to go with Brutus de Villeroi, who eventually built the USS Alligator, the Navy's first submarine.
Kroehl instead spent most of the war as an underwater explosives expert for the Union, working the Mississippi River circuit until he was discharged with malaria. While recuperating, he came up with the idea of a submarine that divers could get in and out of underwater, from which they could set charges and disarm enemy torpedoes. Delgado says Kroehl was smart, and knew the Navy wouldn't pay for the construction of such an experimental boat. So he joined up with the Pacific Pearl Company, which was itching to mine the pearl beds off the Central American coast.
While Kroehl was building his submarine in early 1864, the 'shot heard round the world' in the underwater arms race was fired off Charleston. The privateer H.L. Hunley had sunk the USS Housatonic four miles offshore.
The boat, which Kroehl called the Sub Marine Explorer, was 36 feet long and 10 feet wide and could carry six to eight men. It was notable for its odd elliptical shape, its flat bottom and its separate chamber for pressurized air, which could be pumped into the crew compartment to equalize the pressure enough so the hatches could be opened underwater.
It was, Delgado said, the first self-propelled "lock out" dive chamber, an invention most historians thought didn't come along until the 20th century. [NOT TRUE - DEVILLEROI HAD A WORKING SUB WITH A LOCKOUT CHAMBER IN THE 1830S - Tim S]
By the time the Explorer sailed, the Civil War was just about over. The Navy passed on the boat, but the Pacific Pearl Co. was ready for business. They used tests of the sub in the East River to attract investors.
The New York Times covered one such demonstration in May 1866, when Kroehl took the sub down for an hour and a half, leaving the people on the dock afraid that he had perished beneath the surface.
"Kroehl popped out of the hatch smoking a Meerschaum pipe, holding a bucket of mud scooped off the bottom of the channel," Delgado said.
Soon after that, Pacific Pearl shipped Explorer to Panama, where it gathered pearls successfully for almost three years. Kroehl did not make it so long. After one dive, Kroehl became ill. The locals said he had the "fever" and died shortly thereafter.
Delgado believes there is more to the story. In 1869, according to some accounts, the Explorer was abandoned in Panama Bay after a stint of heavy use. For 10 straight days, divers were taking the sub to a nearby pearl bed 100 feet below the surface, working for four hours and then returning to the surface. To some degree, all of them fell deathly ill.
Reading of Kroehl's symptoms, Delgado says he doesn't believe the engineer had a relapse of his malaria. His symptoms sounded, like those of the other workers who got sick in the sub, much more like the bends.
"They didn't know about decompression," he said. "It was unknown until workers on the Brooklyn Bridge started getting caisson's disease, and wasn't known as the bends until years later. I think Julius Kroehl may have died of the first recorded case of the bends."
NOT WASHED UP YET
The future of the submarine is uncertain. Exposed to the air, sea, and intrepid tourists, its hull is deteriorating badly, and it has apparently fallen victim to looters -- the propeller and conning tower hatch are missing.
Delgado took a crew of scientists down in 2002 to map the sub and give it a more careful examination. On Friday, Delgado said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is looking for the Alligator, has set aside money for a fact-finding expedition to Panama next year. Scientists want to find out if the sub, apparently made almost entirely of brittle cast iron, is too fragile to move, or if it can be saved.
Then -- if it is determined that Explorer can be rescued -- comes the hard part: finding the money to bring it up and care for it. Delgado says if it can be salvaged, it could be put in a tank of cold freshwater to desalinate it until technology invents a way to preserve it for posterity.
The Hunley lab, with its cutting-edge research on preserving Charleston's Civil War sub, is an obvious place for Explorer, says Delgado. But for the foreseeable future, scientists there have their hands full with their own crusty sub.
"It is an interesting parallel story to the Hunley," said Maria Jacobsen, senior archaeologist for the Hunley project. "It furthers our understanding of the evolution of diving technology. But they are two different things. The Explorer is an evolved concept of a dive bell, while the Hunley is a highly maneuverable, hydrodynamic stealth boat. In its case, it is the weapon."
Jacobsen said that the Hunley lab is the ideal place for such a ship, but it will be years before scientists there will have any time or energy to tackle another major project. But if the sub had to sit in holding tanks at the lab, like the cannons from the Alabama, Delgado says that would be better than allowing it to rot off the beach of Isla San Telmo.
"I'd just like to see ol' Uncle Julius's sub saved," Delgado said.
THE SUB MARINE EXPLORER
The submersible was built by Julius Kroehl, a German engineer and former Union naval officer during the Civil War. The 36-foot-long, 10-foot-wide sub was the first to have a pressure chamber system that allowed divers to enter and exit the sub while it was underwater. It was used in the 1860s for pearl diving off the coast of Panama, where it was ultimately abandoned.
Special Report Civil War-Era Sub Linked with Earliest Deaths from the “Bends”
Naval History, December 2004
JAMES P. DELGADO Archaeologist James Delgado, host of National Geographic International Television’s “The Sea Hunters,” which also features best-selling author Clive Cussler, has announced the discovery of a forgotten Civil War submarine, the Sub Marine Explorer, on a deserted island on Panama’s Pacific coast. Delgado’s account of the sub’s history and discovery was announced at a recent press conference and is featured in his new book, Adventures of a Sea Hunter: In Search of Famous Shipwrecks (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2004). News of the discovery comes as the U.S. Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration continue their search for the USS Alligator, the Navy’s first submarine, which foundered off the North Carolina coast in 1863, and work continues to preserve and study the remains of the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley in Charleston, South Carolina. With interest in Civil War submarines at an all-time peak, Delgado’s discovery highlights not only the role of subs in the Civil War but also the exploits of a forgotten New York inventor—whose invention may have killed him. His submarine was the most technologically advanced craft of its age, even more so than the fabled Hunley, but it had a fatal flaw. Its crew compartment, pressurized to the same intense pressures as the deep to allow divers to freely leave and reenter the sub to disarm enemy mines, lay explosives, or, in its final career, collect pearls from the seabed, did not allow the crew to “decompress” when the sub returned to the surface.
That meant the men inside were exposed to the dreaded “bends,” which can cripple and kill divers. History records that the first American victims of the bends, also known as decompression sickness, were workers laboring to build the Brooklyn Bridge in 1869. Descending to the bottom of the river in pressurized caissons, they were struck with a debilitating illness that mystified doctors, who termed it “caisson disease.” It was not until decades later that researchers discovered the cause: rapid decompression after spending time under pressure. The first American to die of caisson disease is said to have been a worker on the St. Louis Bridge in 1870. But Julius Kroehl, a former Union naval officer and inventor of the Sub Marine Explorer, died in Panama of “fever” after several test dives in his craft in 1867. Physicians who have reviewed the technical details of the Explorer and her dives have determined that Kroehl suffered from decompression sickness, which has similar symptoms to malaria, also called fever. It is likely that Kroehl, in fact, was the first American to die from decompression sickness, which continues to claim the lives of divers each year.
This plan of the Sub Marine Explorer appeared in a 1902 article on the history of U.S. submarine development in Journal of the American Society of Naval Engineers.
A German immigrant and a resident of both New York City and Washington, D.C., Kroehl built the Explorer in Brooklyn between 1863 and 1865. The submarine was abandoned off Isla San Telmo in Panama’s Pearl Islands in the fall of 1869, after its final crew was stricken, to a man, with “fever.” Laid up and forgotten in a small cove, it remained unidentified until resident fishermen on a nearby island pointed it out to Delgado, who was sailing through the islands in 2001. “They thought it was a Japanese midget submarine from World War II,” recalls Delgado. “It turned out to be much older and much more significant. In this case, truth is stranger than fiction—although it feels like finding Captain Nemo’s lost sub on Robinson Crusoe’s island.” Delgado led an expedition to Panama earlier this year with the Sea Hunters crew that included a representative of the Historic American Engineering Survey and Hunley Project Historian Mark K. Ragan to document the sub and remove the sand that clogged her interior. They found intact glass instruments filled with mercury and the intricate pipes and valves that controlled Kroehl’s Explorer.
These current section views illustrate the narrowness of the Explorer’s conning tower, and the placement of the lower hatches through which the crew exited and entered the submerged craft.
HISTORIC AMERICAN ENGINEERING RECORD, NATIONAL PARK SERVICE, TODD CROTEAU 2004 Plans are under way to continue the documentation of the Explorer and perhaps bring the submarine home. Where she might go is up for discussion. One option is the foot of East Third Street in Brooklyn, where she made her first dive. Another is the Warren Lasch Center in Charleston, where the H. L. Hunley is undergoing conservation for eventual display. A third possibility is Washington, D.C., home of Kroehl’s wife and site of the family home, when Kroehl was not working as an inventor or in the Union Navy as an underwater explosives expert attached to the staff of venerated Admiral David Dixon Porter.