Tracking a Civil War mystery. Searchers comb Rancocas Creek for a submarine
By Edward Colimore
Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer
One of the searchers fell in the mud, breaking a metal detector and losing his footwear. He turned back wearing only his socks.
Others barely escaped muck up to their knees but pushed on yesterday through the jungle of cattails and duckweeds, hoping to solve a 140-year-old mystery: What happened to a Civil War submarine once stored along the Rancocas Creek at Riverside?
The small party of amateur history sleuths in the marsh and others in kayaks headed to a narrow tributary where the sub was believed to have been abandoned in the 1860s.
And by the end of their arduous, sometimes scary two-hour search, they came away with a tantalizing discovery: a large 35-foot cigar-shaped mound of sand, mimicking the sub's shape and size.
It was apparently created by a solid object, causing a bend in the shallow tributary. A return trip with metal-detecting equipment and ground probes is planned, the searchers said.
"Wow! That's where I used to play in the 1960s," said Richard Pattanite, 49, a Delran resident and vice president of the Riverside Historical Society. "There was a cylinder there but we didn't know what it was."
The search efforts came as the Independence Seaport Museum at Penn's Landing plans to hold a national symposium from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday on the Navy's first submarine, the USS Alligator, a Union vessel that sank off the coast of Hatteras, N.C., and the object of a search by the Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration over the summer.
The vessel being sought at Riverside is the 33-foot prototype of the Alligator. Both underwater crafts were designed by Brutus De Villeroi and built in Philadelphia. De Villeroi was remembered yesterday - along with two Civil War Navy veterans and Medal of Honor recipients - at a ceremony by Civil War and veterans groups at Rosedale Cemetery in Bensalem, Bucks County.
At Riverside, nearly a dozen searchers - led by Riverside Historical Society archivist Alice Smith - set out to locate the sub prototype in a landscape that's been changed over the decades by hurricanes and tidal conditions. Most of them crossed the marsh; two entered from the creek side, using kayaks and exiting them near the reported sub site.
"When I started this, I didn't think it would lead here," said Smith, 58, of Delran. "I was researching crew members and thought I'd be in a library, not a swamp... . I think it's [the sub] there in the mound. I don't have any reason to believe it's not there."
Shortly before low tide yesterday, Smith and other members of the party began trudging across treacherous, vegetation-choked marsh. A few were forced to turn back. Pattanite lost his shoes in the mud and broke a metal detector when he fell in the mud. Several others sank into the marsh almost up their knees but kept going.
But an hour after the search began, the two searchers in the kayaks made an intriguing find.
Nancy Mason, 52, of Belvidere, N.J, a descendant of Alligator commander Samuel Eakins, and Bob Donahue, 57, of Delanco, paddled up a tributary - within a few dozen yards of the other searchers - when they came upon a high, narrow mound.
They called to the others for a metal detectors but the only one they had had been broken earlier. What's more, the parties were unable to connect because of the muddy conditions.
"The mound was suspicious," said Donahue, a customer-service analyst for the Postal Service. "The water ran on both sides of it."
Donahue exited his kayak to investigate.
"It was solid," he said, unlike most of the marshy ground around it.
Mason took a photo of Donahue on the mound - located at same site where Pattanite had played on a mysterious cylinder 40 years earlier.
"I wondered if this was it," Mason said. "There's something there that caused that."