Ask McGehee

Was the first submarine built in Mobile?

Conrad Wise Chapman’s oil painting of the CSS Hunley. Photo Courtesy de Agostini Picture Library

Mobile will forever be linked to the history of submarines, but the first submersible vessels were attempted in Europe in the 1600s. America joined the field in 1776 when a one-man submersible vessel unsuccessfully attacked a British ship anchored in New York’s harbor. In 1861, President Lincoln’s Declaration of Blockade attempted to secure 3,500 miles of Southern shoreline and some 180 harbors.  Once New Orleans had capitulated, the U.S. Navy focused on three major ports: Charleston, Savannah and Mobile.

From New Orleans to Mobile

A group of investors in New Orleans had been experimenting with a design for a submarine but quickly scuttled the craft in Lake Pontchartrain as the Northern Navy approached. The threesome made their way to Mobile, where they convinced the Confederate forces to fund a new venture to break the stranglehold on Southern ports.

There is some controversy as to where the vessel was constructed. For many years, a machine shop at 250 Water St. was designated as the site, and a historic marker still stands beside the traffic of that thoroughfare. New research indicates that the Water Street location would have been far too public a setting for such a top-secret project.

It appears more likely that the vessel was built inside the 1860 Seamen’s Bethel, which stood on Royal Street between Water and Church streets. That block would fall victim to the western lanes of the Wallace Tunnel a century later.

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The structure originally had no windows on its facade and offered the perfect cover for constructing something that many a Northern spy would find very interesting. While the chapel gave the appearance of abandonment, its interior was filled with men constructing a vessel that would change history.

Torpedo Boat

The craft built in Mobile did not resemble a modern submarine at all. In fact, it looked like just what it was: a remodeled boiler with tapered ends. In those ends were tanks, which could be filled with seawater to submerge the vessel. A hand-cranked pump emptied them when it was time to surface.

The first effort was named American Diver and was tested in the waters near Fort Morgan. A sudden squall sent it to the bottom of the Gulf, but its crew survived.

The second attempt was named Fish Boat, and while it had a length just shy of 40 feet, it stood barely 4 feet high. Within, eight men, packed in like sardines, turned a hand crank connected to a propeller. A hinged, retractable pipe provided the only air, while a flickering candle supplied the only light and warned of low oxygen levels. The only escape was a pair of hatches some 15 inches wide.

By 1863, some 885 blockade runners had been caught, but the port of Charleston was still successfully running the blockade. By the end of that year, Fish Boat had arrived in South Carolina by rail for final testing.

Submarine or Floating Coffin?

In 1863, the vessel successfully maneuvered beneath a Confederate ship only to get tangled in its anchor chains. Fish Boat sank, taking its entire crew, including Horace Hunley, the original investor from New Orleans.

The Confederates were able to recover the “torpedo boat,” and as the bodies lay beneath blankets on the dock, it was renamed the Hunley, and a new crew was recruited. On the night of Feb. 18, 1864, the little Hunley slipped out of Charleston’s harbor and approached the 1,260-ton USS Housatonic.

On the Hunley’s bow was a harpoon-like device attached to 90 pounds of black powder. A sailor saw the curious object approaching and thought it was a log or a porpoise. By the time he realized the danger, the harpoon had struck the side of his vessel, and the explosion split the big ship in two, sinking her in under five minutes. Thus the Housatonic became the first ship to be sunk by a submarine.

Word of the sinking of the Housatonic by a “rebel torpedo craft” became international     news and sent the city of Charleston into a joyous celebration. The Hunley, however, had disappeared after the explosion, and her fate and that of her crew would remain a mystery until divers discovered the wreck in 1995 and raised her in 2000. It is believed that the impact of the explosion caused the Hunley to take on water and drown the crew.

It would not be until World War I that submarines were built to become weapons of destruction on the open seas. The first casualty was a German warship struck by a British torpedo in 1914.

The building that housed the construction of this early submarine was moved to the campus of the University of South Alabama where it opened as Theatre USA in 1970.

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