Tuesday, November 8, 2005 By LAWRENCE HAJNA Courier-Post Staff
RIVERSIDE A local historian hopes that a long mound found in marshland along Rancocas Creek over the weekend is the remains of the prototype of a Civil War submarine.
Alice Smith of Riverside plans to ask a Navy-led search team meeting in Philadelphia today for technical help after her band of amateur searchers found the mysterious mound in a ditch in a Rancocas Creek marsh over the weekend.
The sandy hump, shaped like the back of a small whale, was found Saturday by kayakers who were still exploring the marsh after Smith called off a team of foot searchers because of difficult conditions in the marsh.
Smith, a 58-year-old archivist with the Riverside Historical Society, believes photographs taken by one of the kayakers provides strong enough evidence to persuade the Navy and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to send in technical help.
They're meeting at the Independence Seaport Museum today to discuss their ongoing search for the USS Alligator, a larger submarine that was the first to see combat for the Navy.
The prototype, now known as Alligator Jr., has been missing 145 years, disappearing from the historical record. "It's in the area I've been looking at all along," Smith said Monday of the mound in the watery ditch.
The mound, covered in clumps of brown grass, protrudes from a meandering stream known as Ditch No. 4. Smith started focusing on the ditch after studying aerial photos, noting that over time it developed a bend that she believes resulted from a blockage caused by the iron-hulled prototype.
The mound was found by Delanco resident Bob Donahue and Nancy Mason, a Belvidere resident who is the great-granddaughter of Samuel Eakins, the captain of the USS Alligator. That submarine disappeared after being cut loose by a tow ship in a storm off North Carolina in 1863. It saw limited service in Virginia.
Mason shot photographs that are making the rounds of experts. Smith is cautious, but believes the mud could cover the prototype.
"I was thoroughly discouraged at first," she said of her search. "I became a little hopeful after talking to (Donahue and Mason). After seeing the pictures, I'm ecstatic."
Mike Overfield, the leader of the NOAA-Navy team searching for the Alligator, cautioned that a tree or a drainpipe could have created the mound. Digging may be the only way to find out what's there, he said, because sonar and metal detectors don't penetrate well through sediment.
"It sounds pretty exciting to see that mound there where they expected it to be," Overfield said. "It's all positive." Overfield said he would try to get local researchers in touch with a team from East Carolina University that is assisting in the search for the USS Alligator off Cape Hatteras.
Donahue described the sandy mound as about 5 feet high and about the same length as the 32-foot prototype. He went back to the area on Sunday but was unable to pick up any readings on a metal detector or dig away at its flanks.
He plunged a metal probe into the mound several times but did not hit anything. Still, he said it's unusual for sand to collect in a pile as it did. It is usually carried out by tides, leaving heavier mud behind, he said.
"I don't know if there's anything there or not," Donahue said. Smith's search for the prototype began about a year ago, when she learned that a submarine created a sensation during maneuvers in the Delaware River in May 1861. No one knows what happened to the prototype after its inventor, Brutus de Villeroi of France, won a contract to build the full-scale version in Philadelphia.
Members of the historical society tried to take a small boat up Ditch No. 4 in July but turned back after hitting shallow water. A foot search in April was also unsuccessful.