The practical development of the submarine in New York Harbor is a story that unfolded over more than 100 years as a tale of technical genius, spies, good old Yankee bravery, foreign intrigue, and a surprisingly good safety record-in which no lives were lost in spite of the inherently dangerous nature of the work.
The adventure began with the world’s first submarine war patrol, when Continental Army Sergeant Ezra Lee sailed in David Bushnell’s one-man submarine, TURTLE, from the foot of Whitehall Street (about where the Staten Island ferry slip is now located) into Upper New York Bay at 11 PM on September 6, 1776 to sink HMS EAGLE, the flagship of the British fleet. The British fleet, under the command of Admiral Earl Richard Howe, was anchored in Upper New York Bay preparing for a final assault on Washington’s Army, encamped on Manhattan Island, that, if successful, would end the American Revolution.
It was during this time that David Bushnell, a Yale alumnus from Saybrook, Connecticut, completed his work on TURTLE. Called TURTLE because the hull looked like two tortoise shells joined together, the boat bad a manually cranked screw propeller, ballast pumps, and a snorkel-like breathing device. TURTLE also carried an explosive device, or magazine, as it was called. The magazine was a 150 pound charge of gunpowder, detonated by a clockwork time delay mechanism, after being attached through an auger to the wetted hull of EAGLE. The novelty and efficiency of Bushnell’s TURTLE was considerably more than just astonishing. For example, TURTLE had a working screw propeller, an achievement generally credited to John Ericsson, who used screw propulsion on USS MONITOR during the Civil War, 86 years later, and a wave-activated breathing tube-snorkel gear-which would not again see operational use on a submarine for another 160 years!
We can only stand in awe of Sergeant Lee’s courage as he sortied his tiny submarine agaimt the wilderness of masts, spars and rigging for over 200 British ships that cluttered the Upper Bay. Sergeant Lee made his way under EAGLE or possibly HMS ASIA, another large ship of the line riding at anchor near EAGLE. Unfortunately, after several attempts, Sergeant Lee was not able to attach the magazine to EAGLE’s hull. The reason for this failure seems to have been caused by the auger on the magazine which was not able to penetrate the copper sheathing on EAGLE’s hull or was applied to impenetrable ironwork on the ship’s rudder.
With the approach of sunrise, Sergeant Lee discontinued his attack, setting his course for the return trip to Whitehall. Because TURTLE’s comp failed, Sergeant Lee bad to surface every few minutes to correct his course, causing bis unusual craft to be sighted by some of the British soldiers occupying Governor’s Island. A few of these soldiers set out after him in a 12 oared barge. With the barge coming within 50 or 60 yards of TURTLE, Sergeant Lee released the magazine and TURTLE’s pursuers promptly returned to Governor’s Island. The magazine drifted past Governor’s Island into the East River and, in Sergeant Lee’s own words, “went off with a tremendous explosion, throwing up large bodies of water to an immense height.”
George Washington, who may have observed the attack from the roof of a house on Broadway, subsequently wrote of Bushnell that he was ” … a man of great mechanical powers-fertile in invention-and a master in execution.”
Bushnell, with help from his brother Ezra, had built TURTLE, for security purposes, in a shed behind the house of Captain Richard Sill, which house stills stands at remote Ayer’s Point in Saybrook on the Connecticut River. Trials and shakedown cruises, some of which were observed by Benjamin Franklin, were conducted on a desolate stretch of the Connecticut River.
A personal friend of David Bushnell, Dr. Benjamin Gale of Killingworth, Connecticut, wrote several letters to Silas Deane, a member of the Continental Congress, describing TURTLE and seeking financial support from Congress for the project. In Killingworth, however, a man named Sheader held three jobs. He was the town tavern keeper, the town postmaster, and a British spy! She00er routinely intercepted Dr. Gale’s correspondence with Silas Deane and, in this way, knowledge of TURTLE reached Vice Admiral Molyneux Shuldam, Commander-in-Chief of the British Squadron in North America, who did not seem to take the reports of TURTLE too seriously.
Soon after Sergeant Lee’s first war pattol, the British landed on Manhattan Island and Washington’s forces withdrew to the northern part of the island, taking TURTLE along in the general retreat. Two more sorties were made with TURTLE from Manhattan Island against some British frigates in the Hudson River. Fort Washington, the place from which these last sorties were launched, was located near what is now the George Washington Bridge foundation on the New York side of the Hudson River.
One attack from Fort Washington was undertaken by Sergeant Lee and another attack was made by Phineas Pratt, the artisan who built the magazine time delay firing mechanism. Both attacks failed and TURTLE was hoisted aboard a sloop that served as the world’s first submarine tender. The sloop, with TURTLE aboard, was sunk by a British frigate a few days after the last sortie, and although TURTLE was recovered, no future use was made of the boat.
The eventual fate of TURTLE is not known, although one of Phineas Pratt’s magazine firing mechanisms is in the Connecticut Historical Society’s collection. TURTLE may have been scuttled near Fort Washington or, as some believed, returned to the shed at Ayer’s Point. The story of TURTLE, however, is not complete without mentioning a thought provoking report from Captain Thomas Hardy, commanding HMS RAMILLIES off New London, Connecticut during the War of 1812. Captain Hardy reported that his ship had been attacked by a “privateer submarine.” This attack, too, had failed. A hole had been drilled in RAMILLIES’ hull but the screw for attaching the explosive to the ship broke, preventing the magazine, once more, from being fixed to the hull. We do not know, but could this have been the brave little TURTLE’s last sortie against the might of the Royal Navy?
It seems only fair to reflect very carefully on that first war patrol during the night of September 6 and 7, 1776. Because Sergeant Lee and TURTLE did not sink a British vessel, the sortie has gone down in history as a failure. Apart from sinking one British ship, or less than one-two hundredth of the opposing fleet, what greater result might have been expected from TURTLE’s sortie? Could this one little boat compel the British to be more cautious in deploying the fleet around Manhattan Island? Could TURTLE gain a little more time for Washington’s army to prepare for the next British move? Or could one little vessel in some way make the Continental Army’s escape from Manhattan a bit easier? These were exactly the results achieved through Sergeant Lee’s attack on EAGLE. TURTLE forced a powerful British fleet to “Cut their cables” and retreat from the Upper Bay, sail through the Narrows between Brooklyn and Staten Island, and find a new anchorage in Princess Bay at the southeastern end of Staten Island. The British adopted, moreover, the future practice of sweeping the underside of each hull with chains to detect attached magazines.
One submarine, with one magazine, crewed by one soldier actually forced a fleet of more than 200 ships to retreat several miles to a safer anchorage! This certainly was a feat of outstanding gallantry with a result unparalleled in naval history, compared with which the failure to sink one enemy vessel among a fleet of more than 200 ships borders on the insignificant.
Any doubts about Bushnell’s TURTLE and what Sergeant Lee later wrote of his single-handed sortie against the entire British fleet in 1776 were swept away when, on Saturday, August 20, 1977, Connecticut Governor Ella Grasso christened a full scale replica of TURTLE and launched it into the Connecticut River. The replica, built by boat builder Frederic Frese and photographer Joseph Leary, then undertook a successful mock attack on a ship anchored offshore. The TURTLE replica performed as promised in every way and the replica is now on display in the Connecticut River Museum in Essex, Connecticut, near Saybrook, the place where modern submarine warfare was born. A half scale cutaway of TURTLE, moreover, can be seen at the Submarine Force Museum, Naval Submarine Base, Groton, Connecticut.
The next submarine to dive beneath the water around New York Harbor came under construction during the Civil War. Confederate trials with submarines to break the Union blockade are reasonably well known. What is not well known, however, is the North’s experiment with a submarine that began at the same time.
Construction was undertaken in 1863 at Newark, New Jersey, of a submarine known as INTELLIGENT WHALE. INTELLIGENT WHALE, built of one-half inch thick boiler iron, generally in the shape of a huge football, was 30 feet long, about 9 feet deep, and had a speed of four knots when the propeller was cranked by a full crew of 13. INTELLIGENT WHALE was completed in 1866 and was tested by the Army Corps of Engineers on the Passaic River, that flows into New York’s Upper Bay. INTELLIGENT WHALE dove successfully in the Passaic River to a depth of 16 feet. While the boat was underwater Corps of Engineers General T. W. Sweeney, dressed in a diving suit, left INTELLIGENT WHALE through an air lock and attached a mine to a scow the mine exploded, destroying the scow.
Eventually, INTELUGENT WHALE was acquired by the Navy and moved to the Brooklyn Navy Yard for further tests. The record is not too clear, but in 1872 there was an accident which, without loss of life or injury to personnel, delayed the boat from surfacing. As a result, the boat was condemned and ultimately was moved to the Washington Navy Yard where it continues to be on display.
The last phase of submarine development in New York Harbor began a little over 100 years after TURTLE first war patrol. Just across the Hudson River. about 10 miles west of Fort Lee, New Jersey, John P. Holland launched his first submarine in the Upper Passaic River. This boat, HOLLAND NO. 1, went into the water near the Spruce Street Bridge in Paterson, New Jersey on May 22, 1878. HOLLAND NO. 1 cost about $10,000, a sum that was advanced through a Skirmishing Fund established by the Fenian Brotherhood. Once more the target for this work was the Royal Navy. It was hoped that Holland’s submarine might challenge the Royal Navy to a degree that would help liberate Ireland from the British. The money for HOLLAND NO. 1, however, was not advanced until Holland was able to prove its principles to the Brotherhood by operating a 30 inch working model in a demonstration at Coney Island.
Construction started on HOLLAND NO. 1 in 1876 at an iron works on Albany Street in the present-day lower Manhattan financial district. The hull, which was 14-1/2 feet long with a beam of 3 feet, was moved in 1878 to Paterson for completion and on June 6, 1878, Holland made several successful dives in the Passaic River and thus presented the modem submarine to the navies of the world.
Holland and the Brotherhood, concerned because the work was under observation by British intelligence, scuttled HOLLAND NO. 1 in the Passaic River when tests were completed. HOLLAND NO. 1 was raised in 1927, and the hull was placed on public view at the Paterson Museum, where it still remains on display.
Because HOLLAND NO. 1 was such a success, the trustees of the Fenian Skirmishing Fund ordered a combat submarine from Holland. This submarine, FENIAN RAM, was armed with a pneumatic gun in the bow and was manned by a crew of three. FENIAN RAM, which cost the Skirmishing Fund about $18,000, had a beam of 6 feet and a length of 31 feet.
FENIAN RAM was built at Delamater’s Iron Works, a shipyard that was located at the foot of West Thirteenth Street in Manhattan. Launched in the Hudson River in May of 1881, the submarine was first tested at Jersey City in the Morris Canal Basin, a large inlet just opposite Manhattan’s Battery Park and a little more than a mile north of Ellis Island. Subsequently, FENIAN RAM was berthed at the Crescent Yacht Club in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.
The Fenians then ordered a third submarine. This third boat was under construction in Jersey City where, in late November 1882, a dissident group of Fenians slipped into the dockyard and launched the unfinished boat. They then took both FENIAN RAM and her new launched sister ship in tow behind a tug and headed up the East River to Long Island Sound and New Haven. Choppy water and an improperly secured hatch caused the new boat to sink in the East River off Whitestone Point under more than 100 feet of water, where it probably rests to this day. After some years, however, FENIAN RAM was moved to the Paterson Museum, where it can still be seen.
With the theft of FENIAN RAM and her sister ship stiU fresh, a discouraged Holland was introduced to Lieutenant Edmund L. Zalinski, an Army artillery officer posted at the time to Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn.
Lieutenant Zalinski, a prolific inventor of military devices, considered his pneumatic dynamite torpedo gun a potential submarine weapon. Joining with Holland, Lieutenant Zalinski found some private financing, organized the Nautilus Submarine Boat Company, and undertook with Holland construction of what became known as the Zalinski Boat on the parade ground at Fort Lafayette, a fort that was demolished some years ago to provide the foundation for the Verazzano Narrows Bridge near the Brooklyn shore.
The Zalinski Boat had a wooden hull mounted on iron frames, was 50 feet long and had a maximum beam of 8 feet. The boat was to mount one of Lieutenant Zalinski’s pneumatic dynamite guns. The launching on September 4, 1885, however, was a disaster! The launching way collapsed, throwing the Zal inski Boat into some pilings that holed the hull. Raised and repaired, the Zalinski Boat made a few disappointing trial runs in the Narrows. Underpowered, the Zalinski Boat was never satisfactory in performance and soon was scrapped.
Possibly the most important result of the Zalinski Boat was that it kept a discouraged Holland active in submarine development. Thus, after a few years Holland built two more boats. These submarines, however, were not Fenian Skirmishing Fund ventures but were built with the U.S. Navy as the customer. HOLLAND VI, later to become USS HOLLAND (SS 1), was launched into the waters around New York Harbor on May 17, 1898 from Lewis Nixon’s Crescent Shipyard, Elizabethport, New Jersey. Initial trials for this, the most famous of all of Holland’s boats, were conducted off Staten Island in Raritan Bay near Tottenville and in Princess Bay-the old British fleet anchorage. Tests for the Navy were carried out on November 12, 1898 in Lower New York Bay in the general area between the Old Orchard Shoal Light and Sandy Hook, New Jersey.
During these trials, Robbins Dry Dock port and berthing facilities at Fiftieth Street in Brooklyn were ordinarily used for HOLLAND IV. Because of crowded harbor conditions, further development was carried out on eastern Long Island in Little Peconic Bay between Orient and Montauk Points. The facilities of the Goldsmith and Tuthill Yard in Suffolk on the north shore of the bay were used for this purpose. The Goldsmith Yard ultimately built the submarines ADDER, MOCCASIN, PORPOISE and SHARK for the Navy, thus becoming the world’s first modem submarine shipyard.
A Holland competitor, Simon Lake, born in Pleasantville, New Jersey, began working on a submarine design about 1890 at Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, near the entrance to New York Harbor. Lake’s plan for his ARGONAUT submarine, rejected by the Navy in 1892, eventually led him to design and build with private funds a smaller ARGONAUT JUNIOR. ARGONAUT JUNIOR, launched into the Shrewsbury River in New Jersey in 1894, had a caulked double hull of yellow pine with a layer of canvas between the two pine layers. The boat had a hand-cranked propeller, a compressed air tank coupled to a plumber’s hand pwnp, and four wooden wheels for running on the bottom, two of the wheels being hand-cranked through a chain drive. The boat had a door and Lake drove his little vessel around on the bottom of New York Bay, picking up clams and oysters and even spearing fish through the opened door.
After some time, Lake moved bis activity to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where be built a number of boats for the United States, Austria, Italy, Germany and Russia. One of the boats that he built for the U.S. Navy, USS SEAL, was given a hull number of 19-112, the only fractional hull number ever assigned to a Navy vessel.
The submarine did not depart from New York Harbor, however, without a final touch of intrigue. Just before the Russo Japanese War, Lake smuggled one of his boats, PROTECTOR, to Russia through a rendezvous in Princess Bay with a merchant steamer and a derrick. The derrick hoisted PROTECTOR on board the steamer, which then carried its contraband cargo to a Russian destination. This last act ended New York Harbor’s direct involvement in the development of the submarine, most of which happened within the Statue of Liberty’s benign gaze.