Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


CDR Poole has been assigned to the Office of Naval Re-search (ONR) since November 2001, working with the Naval Research Science and Technology Action Team (NRSTAT), ONR-Global and, currently, the Tech Solutions Program. A native of Albany, New York, Rich currently resides in Washington, DC.

Mr. Christley is a retired Senior Chief Petty Officer who served from 1962 to 1982 on seven submarines ranging from diesel boats to fast attacks and missile submarines. After working in the field of submarine noise reduction until 1997, he started a third career in fine arts. Jim presently resides with his wife Peggy in Lisbon, CT where he has his studio.

Imagine Jiving in Philadelphia during the early days of the Civil War and reading the latest issue of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. A front page story reveals a strange and alarming tale: Harbor police have captured a partially-submerged, cigar-shaped “infernal machine moving slowly down the Delaware River.

This submarine was the creation of French inventor, Brutus De Villeroi, who had moved to America in 1859. Although little is known about De Villeroi personally, it is clear that he possessed a healthy self-image; in the 1860 census, he listed his occupation as Natural Genius.

A native of Tours, De Villeroi had spent much of his adult career in Nantes, working as a mathematics teacher and part-time inventor. One of the devices he had developed in France was a small submarine that could function as a support platform for hard hat divers. He built one that was tested in a bay on the west coast of France. Although the French Navy was not interested in the device, De Villeroi was undeterred.

Among his students was Jules Verne, who would later write about the fantastic voyages of the submarine, NAUTILUS in the book Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Considering that De Villeroi had named an earlier undersea prototype NAUTILUS, it is not farfetched to surmise that the inventor had been a strong influence on young Verne’s imagination.

Working in Philadelphia on an anthracite coal exporting venture, De Villeroi interested some insurance backers in the concept of using a submarine similar to the one he built in France to search for and salvage gold, most notably from wrecks of the DE BRAAKE and CENTRAL AMERICA. He was testing his small salvage submarine in the Delaware River when the police took notice. They arrested De Villeroi as well as some of his workmen. They also impounded the curious iron tube, which measured some 33 feet long and about five feet in diameter.

Needless to say, the police had no idea what this vessel was but they knew it needed to be put under Naval control. They contacted Captain Samuel F. DuPont, commandant of the Philadelphia Navy Yard. In response, Captain DuPont appointed three officers to examine the device, interview the inventor and report their findings. Whether by design or not, De Villeroi had succeeded, by November 1861, in signing a contract with the Navy to build the Union’s first submarine.

The officers chosen by DuPont were ideally qualified to inspect De Villeroi’s novel vessel. The senior officer was Commander Henry K. Hoff, an expert in ship design. As second officer, Commander Charles Steedman was an expert in naval warfare. The third officer, Robert Danby was an eminent naval engineer. After completing their examination, the three submitted their report on July 7, 1861.

The Hoff Commission reported that De Villeroi’s screw-propelled submarine, resembling a whale in form, appeared to be a successful venture. The officers singled-out four distinctive operational characteristics of the submarine: I) the ability to remain submerged for a length of time without exposing anything to the outside air; 2) the ability to sink and be raised at will; 3) the ability
of a man to leave and return to the vessel while both remained submerged and lastly; 4) the ability of a man to survive outside the submarine while submerged by breathing through an air tube connected to the inside of the boat.

While the Hoff Report was being filtered upward through various Navy bureaus, De Villeroi sent letters describing the invention to both Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and President Abraham Lincoln. His letter to Lincoln was forwarded to the Navy Department. In response to his correspondence from De Villeroi, Welles ordered Commodore Joseph Smith, Chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks, to report on the submarine. Smith informed Welles that the Hoff report had reflected favorably on the vessel but that, in her present configuration, she was too small to readily test as a weapon. In response, Smith recommended that a larger version be built on a 110 payment for failure basis.

With the assistance of a Philadelphia contractor, Martin Thomas, a contract to build a new submarine was drawn up among a trio of interested parties: De Villeroi, Thomas and a group of financial backers, and the US Navy itself. Located in the National Archives, the contract for construction of the Alligator underscores the Navy’s intention for the vessel as well as a tantalizing secret:

In case the said De Villeroi shall perform valuable services with said propeller for the United States by the destruction of an enemy’s ship or vessel by direction of the Secretary of the Navy and to his satisfaction, then the government of the United States shall pay to the party of the first part a further sum of eighty six thousand dollars ($86,000) subject to and appropriated by Congress.

The secret of said invention shall be divulged by the inventor, M. De Villeroi, under his solemn oath or affirmation in a written paper subscribed by him to be sealed and deposited with the Chief of Bureau of Yards and Docks, with the certificate thereon of Mr. W.L Hirst that he has carefully examined the paper and firmly believes it to be of the secret of said invention, not to be opened until after the payment of said eighty six thousand dollars, or the death, disability or dereliction of duty of the inventor shall occur.

The said invention shall not be used by or the secret divulged to any government, power or individual without the consent in writing of both parties to this agreement.

The stream of these events in 1861 mark the very beginning of the U.S. Naval Submarine Force, as reflected in the little-known story of United States Submarine Propeller U.S.S. Alligator, a technological wonder akin to other great maritime advances of the Civil War era, including the celebrated ironclad U.S.S. MONITOR. and the recently-raised Confederate submarine, C.S.S. HUNLEY.

The Alligator Comes to Life

Construction of the vessel began immediately at the Neafie and Levy Shipyard, in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. Although the Navy had specified that the submarine’s construction take no more than 40 days at a cost of $14,000, the project would suffer long delays.

On December 7, 1861, De Villeroi wrote to Commodore Smith that the vessel was “almost entirely finished, but he nonetheless emphasized that the construction time would need to be extended in order to finish “delicate pieces of the interior. He also noted that, because vessel was entirely different than anything that the yard had built before, it was scarcely possible for the contractor to truly appreciate how long construction would take. De Villeroi added that the contractor (Thomas) had not scheduled things properly. The seeds of disagreement were thus sown, guaranteeing a disruption of building process and further delays.

Because the Neafie and Levy shipyard was expert in building boilers, marine engines, and smaller tugs, it could easily build the submarine’s main structure and propulsion system. Contrary to De Villeroi’s contention in his letter to Smith, the vessel’s internal workings were not overly complex. It is likely that the inventor was attempting to further delay the project in order to cut out Thomas and his backers from the project.

Enter Mr. William L. Hirst. A Philadelphia lawyer, Hirst was hired to serve as a go-between in the ongoing dispute between De Villeroi and Thomas. Commodore Smith granted a fifteen-day extension on December I 0, 1861, the date the boat was to be finished. On December 20th, Smith received word that the secrets were in Hirst’s possession and locked in his safe. Smith’s hard stand on finishing the ship was based, at least in part, on his own deadline. Norfolk had fallen and word of the conversion of U.S.S. MERRI-MAC into C.S.S. VIRGINIA had reached Washington. In his letter to De Villeroi, Smith noted that any contract scheduling difficulties were “no fault of mine.”

The letter passed on from Hirst to the Bureau asking for another 14 days to finish the work. At about the same time, the inventor wrote to Smith that the delays were entirely the fault of the contractor (Thomas), in that money was not forthcoming to allow work at night and on weekends. De Villeroi further stated that a crew was needed to be hired soon so they could be trained. At the end of the letter, De Villeroi recommended to the Commodore that the two of them correspond directly, not through the contractor, to resolve any remaining problems.

Commodore Smith was furious. On December 3n1, he wrote to De Villeroi, spelling out the facts of bureaucratic life. He noted that he would be happy to correspond but “as for the contract, the Department knows no one but the contractor. He further stated that, because of the delays and evident problems, the ship would not be considered received until it had been fully tested and determined by the Navy to be fit in all respects.

The second extension passed and the vessel still was not finished. It appears that there were some things the inventor wanted for the boat that Thomas had not provided and these were needed to produce the secrets mentioned in the contract. From the existing records, it seems that the secrets refer to a form of air purification system and a type of battery. An air purification system would be of great use in allowing the submarine to stay submerged. The usefulness of the battery is somewhat a mystery. One conjecture is that it would be used to detonate mines or charges laid by the divers.

De Villeroi wrote to Smith on January 18th, magnanimously stating that his payment for work on the submarine would be “the glory and successful completion of the work.” He added that, “after taking on the ballast of lead and some pieces of platina which have not been furnished me,” the work would be finished. Because the completion date and the extensions had passed, he once again recommended that he and Smith henceforth communicate directly with each other: “Now that you have done away with the contractor … business ought to be between the government and the inventor.”

On the January 22nd, Smith brusquely informed the inventor that no further money would be forthcoming until the boat was finished and tested. He added that the government still knew no one but the contractor with respect to the boat. A week later, Smith sent Thomas an ultimatum: If the boat was not finished and ready to be shipped aboard USS RHODE ISLAND in three or four days, the time for using the submarine would have passed, adding ” … MERRIMAC (C.S.S. VIRGINIA) is out of dock and ready for trial at Norfolk”.

The submarine was reported ready for launch on January 29th but, according to Thomas, some of the oars that were to be used for propulsion had to be reworked, thereby further delaying the launch. At about the same time, De Villeroi advised Smith that the latest delay was being caused by ice on the river. In the meantime, the boat was being painted, green outside and white inside.

February arrived and the boat was still not complete. Commodore Smith was becoming increasingly anxious, both because of the apparent lack of progress of the submarine and the imminent threat being posed by C.S.S. VIRGINIA. A letter to De Villeroi on February l st suggests that, while Smith had little faith in the usefulness of the boat, he still felt it warranted a trial.

Smith had made a tactical error in that letter by assuring De Villeroi that Thomas was to provide everything he needed to finish the submarine. De Villeroi immediately wrote back and listed each of the required materials that had not been supplied, which he contended held up completion of the boat. These included explosives, two hydraulic jacks, platina, a telescope which could give distances (a patented invention of De Villeroi’s that proved to be of particular use in the submarine), and a chest of tools. In the same letter, he also listed a litany of complaints about Thomas-including his having had unethical discussions about De Villeroi’s inventions with other scientists and not spending enough money to complete the work in a timely manner. The monies spent on the project, he insisted, were much less than the $14,000 allotted in the contract. Suggesting that there had been threats against the boat, he also urged that the Navy to take possession of the vessel while it was still being completed, in order to keep it safe from harm.

Before this letter had reached the Bureau, Smith informed Thomas stated the tenns of the contract had not been met and that the boat would not be received by the Department until such time as further opportunities avail themselves, when the contract would have to be renegotiated. De Villeroi, upon hearing of this development, rushed off another letter to Smith. He insisted that he (De Villeroi) was still employed by the government and was therefore entitled to pay until such a time as the Navy Department suspended his nomination as engineer of the work.

Smith shot back that the relationship among Thomas, De Villeroi and the Navy Department was unique. He then issued his sternest ultimatum:

… the time has elapsed for the completion of the boat and the contract is forfeited. You now decline, as I learn, to give certificate of the completion of the boat because the contractor demurs to furnishing a quantity of costly material which the chemists say is unnecessary.

Therefore work and superintending is stopped and will remain so until you and Mr. Thomas come to tenns … If the contractor will deliver the boat in 10 days complete and with your certificate and you and your crew will be there, the government will test the efficiency and if she proves satisfactory, payment will be made. Until there is compliance with these tenns, the Department will…consider the bargain as closed.

After that, Hirst tried to salvage the project by initiating a flurry of correspondence between Thomas and De Villeroi. As a result, the parties came to tenns on everything but the platina for the battery. The problem was not whether they were necessary, but what size they were to be. Thomas tried to placate the inventor by sending him money to get the plates that he could not find. De Villeroi wrote a letter to Smith saying that he considered the offer insulting, calling it an “insidious proposition. He also wrote to Lincoln, still trying to cling to the hope that he could be named as commander of the vessel. With little subtlety, he wrote “(I) haven’t received a commission as yet as commander of the Propeller-I would be happy to receive it from you. No reply to this letter has, as yet, been located.

After Thomas notified Smith that attempts to resolve the various problems had failed, Smith decided to consider the contract null and void because its terms had not been met. Hirst again interceded to try to save the project. Smith agreed to send Captain Davis of his staff to negotiate with the parties and attempt to resolve the impasse. De Villeroi refused to meet with Davis. In objecting to certain changes to his plans for the vessel’s construction, the inventor effectively exited himself from the process and was later officially dismissed as supervisor. Completion of the submarine would go on without him.

On May l, 1862, the new submarine was launched by a crane which lowered her slowly into the water of the Delaware River. Mr. Levy stood on the deck as if to show his confidence. Later that day, she was towed to the Philadelphia Navy Yard. The submarine had actually become the property of the Navy since April 28th when the Navy Department made payment to the shipbuilder.

After reading a newspaper account of the Navy’s acquisition of the boat, De Villeroi became furious. He wrote a scathing letter to Secretary Welles. Receiving no reply, he then sent a letter to Smith, degrading the honor of virtually everyone associated with the project. In his reply to the inventor, Smith diplomatically tried to placate De Villeroi, but to no avail. De Villeroi was no longer interested in taking any part of the project. The boat was now without a system expert.

A salvage diver, Samuel Eakins, was brought to the attention of Martin Thomas and was soon appointed to oversee completion of the boat, finish her details, and act as her skipper. Eakins had worked in clearing the Sevastapol harbor of wrecks left after the Crimean War.

One month later, Commodore Smith directed Hirst to formally tum the submarine over to the Commandant of the Philadelphia Navy Yard, a task he completed on the June 13, 1862. Eakins would serve as Acting Master of the vessel, with a crew that would be paid by the Navy.

Painted green and propelled by a row of nine oars on each side, the vessel quickly became known as the ALLIGATOR by virtue of the reptile she resembled. These following particulars at the time of her launch are gleaned from the designer’s drawings and written descriptions, since no official Navy drawings or sketches of the vessel have yet been located:

Length: 47′ (Hull)
Beam: 4′-6″ (Hull)
Extreme Beam: 8′-2″ (over oar guards)
Keel to top of hull: 6′-0″
Keel to top of air tube: 8′-2”
Color: Dark green with white interior
Displacement 27 tons surface/ 35 tons submerged
Propulsion: A system of 18 oars, nine on each side.
Crew: One officer, one helmsman, and 18 oarsmen (one or
two of whom are presumed to have also served as divers);
Weapons: Divers and explosives, torpedoes (mines)

ALLIGATOR was fashioned of riveted iron plates, rounded at both top and bottom and tapered at the bow. It is not certain whether the stem was similarly tapered or more rounded. The access to the interior was via a hatch set forward on the upper side of the hull. After Eakins took over superintending the vessel’s completion, he arranged to build a small cast-iron dome to replace the upper access hatch. It doubled as a hatch and, punctuated with several small windows, had just enough room for the boat’s commander to stick his head up inside to see out. A second hatch on the lower side of the tapered bow structure was designed for diver access. A small diver lockout chamber was located in the bow.

By the time the ALLIGATOR was ready, C.S.S. VIRGINIA was gone, scuttled by her crew. Commodore Smith had ordered the submarine to the command of Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. Goldsborough quickly determined that ALLIGATOR could be a great asset in helping to clear obstructions in the James River, near Drewry’s Bluff. Not only would this assist the Union Army, now stuck on a line from Harrison Landing northward around the east side of Richmond, it would also allow ironclad ships, such as U.S.S. GALENA and U.S.S. MONI-TOR. to pass upriver, flank the Confederate line and bombard Richmond.

The submarine was towed to Hampton Roads by the crew of the tug Fred Copp. Her awaiting missions: to destroy a strategically important bridge across the Appomattox River and to clear away various obstructions in the James River. When ALLIGATOR arrived at the James, with Eakins in charge, a fierce battle was being waged in the area. As directed by Goldsborough, the submarine was moored alongside the ship SATELLITE. which he ordered to provide berthing, messing and other necessities for ALLI GA TOR’ s crew. In effect, he created what would become a new concept: the forward area based submarine tender.

Goldsborough turned over tactical command of the submarine to Lieutenant (Commanding) John Rogers of U.S.S. GALENA. On June 25th, Rogers inspected the vessel and later, at a meeting with Eakins, rejected using the boat for the twin tasks of breaching the obstructions and blowing up the railroad bridge at Petersburg. His logic, even today, is irrefutable. The submarine required at least six feet of water to operate submerged and another 18 inches minimum to lock out a diver. Both the James and the Appomattox were less than seven feet at the points of operation. The ship would have to operate semi-submerged and therefore would be vulnerable to cannon fire. Rogers recommended that the vessel be sent back to Hampton Roads to prevent capture and use by the Confederates.

By the end of June, ALLIGATOR was on her way back to the Hampton Roads, en route to Washington for further experimentation and testing. Ironically, the Union’s first submarine had earned the distinction of being the very first submarine to be deployed to a combat zone, but after eight days there, had not been used.


In August 1862, Lieutenant Thomas 0. Selfridge accepted command of the submarine, after being promised promotion to captain if he and ALLIGATOR’s new crew destroyed the new Confederate ironclad, VIRGINIA II. During test runs in the Poto¬∑ mac, ALLIGATOR proved to be underpowered and unwieldy. During one particular trial, the vessel’s air quickly grew foul, the crew panicked, and all tried to get out of the same hatch at the same time~prompting the future Admiral Selfridge to deem the subma¬∑ rine unseaworthy and the whole enterprise afailure. He and his crew were reassigned and the vessel was sent to dry dock for extensive conversion. The dream of using this secret weapon against VJR. GIN/A II was scrapped.

Despite Selfridge’s negative report, ALLIGATOR won some converts and, during the winter of 1862, underwent a propulsion change. Her oars were removed, replaced by a hand…cranked screw propeller. In a test witnessed by President Lincoln on March 18, 1863, the boat made four knots. A letter to Commodore Smith makes note of the test, describing ALLIGATOR’s performance as admirable.

Now, in the spring of 1863, another task beckoned. Samuel F. DuPont, the same officer who had headed the initial investigation of De Villeroi’s invention eighteen months before, was now in command of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. Stationed in Port Royal near Charleston, he and his staff were trying to determine how best to invade and open up Charleston harbor. Unlike Farragut before him, he could not simply force passage by running past the forts into the inner harbor. Even there, his ships would have been sitting ducks. Moreover, two Confederate ironclads, C.S.S. CHICORA and C.S.S. PALMETTO STATE, were threatening to break the blockade by escorting cargo ships past the Union Naval forces off the harbor entrance. Using ALLIGATOR for attacking these two ships at their anchorage seemed to be the ideal solution. Upon DuPont’s request, the submarine and her crew, once again commanded by Eakins, were ordered to Port Royal to participate in the capture of Charleston.

An Early Demise

On March 31 “,one day before departing Washington, Eakins and his crew transferred freight aboard U.S.S. SUMPTER. the ship that would tow the submarine around Cape Henry and south to Cape Hatteras, en route to Port Royal. Included in the freight were large lead ingots that would be used as ballast for ALLI GA TOR, which was connected to the tug by two lines, or hawsers. Both crews were situated aboard SUMPTER.

After a calm first day at sea, the men l!IJlllPllll began to experience what the New York Times would later describe as a “succes-sion of gales and tornadoes which were almost unparalleled in severity. On the afternoon of April 2”.i, off the coast of ‘ Cape Hatteras, the storm’s fury increased to the point where SUMPTER was “plunging under to the foremast, , according to the ship’s Acting Master, i W.F. Winchester. Suddenly, one of two hawsers snapped, causing the submarine to yaw wildly. As described by Eakins in a letter dated April 9’h to Secretary Welles, the situation forced a difficult decision:

About 3:40 p.m., it was reported to me that the Port Hawser attached to ALLIGATOR had parted and at 5:30 p.m., I was informed that the ship was laboring heavily and that it would be impossible for the Starboard Hawser to hold out much longer … I concurred with the opinion of the other officers of the ship and the order was given to cut the Hawser, which was accordingly done.

According to the reports sent to Welles, ALLIGATOR was lost at sea, in an area where the ocean’s depth is as great as 9000 feet. The little submarine that was en route to make history was never seen again.

Fast Forward

In the 140 years since ALLIGATOR’s loss, relatively little has been written about her. Louis Bollander’s scholarly article in the June 1938 issue of U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings refers to the ALLIGATOR as the first federal submarine of the Civil War. Other articles have subsequently been published in periodicals such as All Hands, Civil War Times Illustrated, and America’s Civil War. In his book, Submarine Warfare in the Civil War, Mark Ragan has woven the story of ALLIGATOR into the historical context of submarine development throughout the l 81h and I 9’h centuries, with particular focus on the l 860’s. Despite these and other publications that describe ALLIGATOR, the boat’s story has remained obscure–up until recently, that is.

One day in early 2002, the Chief of Naval Research, Rear Admiral Jay Cohen and his wife were browsing a local bookstore. Mrs. Cohen brought her husband’s attention to a small magazine article on ALLIGATOR. A career-long submariner, Cohen was amazed that he had never heard of the vessel. Later, as he read the piece, he became fascinated with the tale of De Villeroi, his possible connection with Jules Verne as well as the myriad secrets that still surround the vessel.

Shortly thereafter, during a trip to the site of the remains of John F. Kennedy’s famed PT-109 in the Solomon Islands, Cohen shared the tale with two colleagues: famed marine explorer Bob Ballard and Dan Basta, head of the Marine Sanctuaries Program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Before long, the three men were asking the same question: Can we find her?

Upon his return, Cohen assigned Commander Richard Poole of ONR to coordinate both the uncovering of historical information on the vessel and the pulling together of a steering committee to make recommendations based on this information. Working at the National Archives and the Library of Congress, Poole found numerous letters and articles written in the I 860’s-including the letters from Eakins and Winchester that describe ALLIGATOR’s loss. Poole also enlisted the help of various experts on the topic-including historians Jim Christley and Mark Ragan. Recog-nizing the historical significance of the vessel, Christley and Ragan were pleasantly surprised to hear of the Navy’s interest; they had never imagined that serious consideration would ever be given to the possibility of finding her.

In late November 2002, the Chief of Naval Research hosted a meeting attended by Christley, Ragan, NOAA representatives, as well as retired Rear Admiral Malcolm MacKinnon, a noted expert on towing. After reviewing historical information uncovered to date, the attendees were asked to consider: l) what might have happened to the submarine after she was cut loose; and 2) the possibilities of forming an ongoing, collaborative effort to both raise awareness about ALLIGATOR and, eventually, locate her. A consensus was reached that the boat was probably taking on water and was in the process of sinking at the time of her being cut loose. Knowing the general area where she was separated from SUMPTER, work could begin on studying whether the submarine might still be intact and locatable.

Separate surges of effort thus began on what would become known as ALLIGATOR Project. Personnel from ONR and NOAA continued to conduct research into the documented history of ALLIGATOR and the probable area of her sinking. With the assistance of NOAA ‘s Michiko Martin and faculty of the U.S. Naval Academy, four U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen, all majoring in oceanography, participated in a semester-long project on ALLIGATOR. After carefully considering storm conditions, the last noted location of the submarine, geology of the ocean bottom in that area, wind and wave conditions, and the vessel’s structural proper-ties, the students reached the following conclusions:

  • ALLIGATOR was most likely lost in the middle of the Gulf Stream.
  • Presuming the submarine sank in deep (9000 feet or so) water, it is probable that that she remains on the seabed in relatively intact condition.

Meanwhile, Poole and Christley reviewed existing historical records about the construction and use of ALLIGATOR at the Philadelphia Historical Society, the National Archives, the Mystic Seaport Library and Submarine Museum Library in Groton, Connecticut. On the 140th anniversary of the sinking of ALLIGATOR, a conference was held at ONR where results of these preliminary investigations were presented. It was agreed that the search for ALLIGATOR should proceed and, at the recommendation of Rear Admiral Cohen, that a symposium be held in the near future to increase public awareness about the vessel.

The actual search for ALLIGATOR commenced in June 2003. During a routine cruise, the NOAA research vessel Thomas Jefferson devoted several days of her survey time to conduct a sonar search for Alligator-like objects in an inshore section off Cape Hatteras. Because no likely signatures were detected, this area was eliminated from future consideration.

In October 2003, a “Hunt for the ALLI GA TOR symposium was staged at the Naval Submarine Museum in Groton, Connecticut. Attended by over 75 people, including representatives of the media, the event featured lively dialogue and presentations on aspects of ALLIGATOR ‘s history and scenarios surrounding her loss. Among the speakers was Bob Ballard who, referring to his experience in locating the TITANIC, PT 109 and other shipwrecks, addressed prospects for finding the submarine.

Another presenter was NOAA ‘s Catherine Marzin, who revealed news of an exciting discovery she had recently made at the French Navy’s historical archives, the Service Historique de la Marine: the only design drawings of ALLIGATOR found to date. Drafted by De Villeroi, the drawings provide new details about the vessel’s architecture and breakthrough technologies. Marzin also reported finding a number of original, hand-written letters exchanged in the spring of 1863 by De Villeroi and the French government. The letters document De Villeroi’s repeated but unsuccessful attempts to persuade the government of his native country to purchase his submarine design.

By the end of 2003, after distribution of a joint ONR-NOAA press release, word of ALLIGATOR began to spread like wildfire. Focused on the news of the discovery of the French blueprints, the release resulted in the publication of articles in numerous newspapers across the country, including the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Electronic media picked up the story as well, with interviews on NPR’s Morning Edition and ABC.

The Way Ahead

While it is still too early to tell what will come from the new groundswell of interest in the submarine, it is safe to say that the hunt for ALLIGATOR will continue. To date, very little has been spent on the project and it is likely to remain so, unless a major contributor comes through with funding to support a sustained search.

In any event, as a result of the recent efforts of both ONR and NOAA, the ALLIGATOR Project has developed a momentum of its own. Admiral Cohen has frequently invited everyone interested to join what he lightheartedly calls “AA-Alligator Anonymous . Interested individuals as well as organizations such as NAUTICUS, the Naval Historical Center, and the Navy and Marine Living History Association {NMLHA) have responded to that call by helping to increase public awareness about ALLIGATOR. For example, in addition to NOAA’s ALLIGATOR website (, NMLHA has devel-oped its own, highlighting its various ALLIGATOR-related educational activities (

And so, more than 140 years later, the fascination with DeVilleroi’s infernal machine is rekindled. As the Alligator’s 1501h anniversary approaches, the question looms larger: “Can we find her?

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League