Enter close quarters: colonial to nuclear subs

Email|Print| Text size + By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / April 8, 2007

ESSEX, Conn. -- Connecticut's shipbuilding history is many fathoms deep. Just five miles from the mouth of the mighty river that drains western New England, this tiny village was so focused on boats that Main Street simply runs straight through town until it disappears into the Connecticut River.

Standing at the water's edge, the barn-like Connecticut River Museum tells the story of the lower river valley and its links to the sea.

One of the more curious tales took place in 1776, when Connecticut was up in arms with the colonies, and David Bushnell of Saybrook invented the first submarine ever used in combat. Having figured out how to make gunpowder burn underwater, Bushnell reasoned that putting a hole in the hull of a British warship might help the cause of the American Revolution. So he turned his attention from explosive device to delivery vehicle, creating a craft he called the American Turtle.

That September, rebels transported Bushnell's contraption to New York Harbor, where hastily trained volunteer Ezra Lee set out to blow up the flagship HMS Eagle. Furiously cranking the propeller, Lee maneuvered the Turtle into place, but struck an iron fitting when he attempted to attach the bomb. He engaged the timing device, cast the bomb loose, and cranked his way to safety. The underwater blast was said to have terrified the enemy navy -- but not enough to drive them from the harbor.

The Turtle escaped and was hoisted aboard an American schooner headed up the Hudson River, but when the vessel was sunk off Fort Lee, the submarine went down with the ship.

Boatbuilder Fred Frese of East Haddam and photojournalist Joseph Leary resurrected the sub, in spirit at least, for the American Bicentennial. Working from Bushnell's descriptions, especially in his letters to Thomas Jefferson, they built a modern replica and tested it in the waters off Essex, demonstrating that it could dive and surface and slowly move about.

The reproduction shares the second level of the museum with portraits of graceful sailing ships and artifacts of the mid-19th- century packet trade with Britain and the American South. Bushnell's far less elegant vessel could have as easily been called the American Diving Barrel. It's constructed of oak staves over a rib structure, with a rudder off the back and a hand-cranked propeller on the front. On top, Bushnell mounted a screw augur so the operator could drill a hole in the target vessel's hull to attach the bomb. The internal workings of the Turtle are not visible to museum visitors.

The Turtle's bad luck was not the end of Connecticut submarines, however. Modern submariners rule the waters only a half hour up the coast at the New London Naval Submarine Base, on the Thames River in Groton. The massive installation, which became the Navy's first sub base just before World War I, remains an active home port to 17 attack subs.

Groton is also home to the Electric Boat shipyard, which pioneered the construction of modern submarines. The nation's first nuclear sub, the USS Nautilus, berths along the river next to the base at the Submarine Force Museum -- a short distance from the boatyard where it was christened . Touring the vessel caps the journey through the saga of submarine warfare.

The museum traces the development of submarines from Bushnell's Turtle (a very stressed-looking mannequin is crammed into a cutaway model) to modern undersea vessels. Most historical exhibits focus on the underwater boats of World War II and the role of the Silent Service during the armaments buildup of the Cold War.

Even to those who remember the days of duck-and-cover drills in school, the exhibits can seem like period pieces today. But that long-ago sense of urgency is palpable in the timeline tracing the development of nuclear-powered subs under Admiral Hyman Rickover. The keel for the Nautilus was laid in Groton in 1952, and first lady Mamie Eisenhower christened the 319-foot sub in January 1954. On Aug. 3, 1958, the Nautilus became the first vessel ever to reach the North Pole. Two years later, the Triton, another Electric Boat vessel, completed the first submerged circumnavigation of the globe, taking 84 days to travel 41,519 nautical miles.

Short videos next to instrument panels give something of the feel of navigating and maneuvering the vessels and firing their weapons. One darkened alcove lets children handle controls for diving and surfacing and firing missiles. In what almost seems like a clip from "Dr. Strangelove," a video loop shows a missile bursting from beneath the waves to disappear into the sky, bound for an unseen distant target. Preschoolers jabbing at the buttons invariably shriek with glee at each launch.

Encapsulated in a behemoth metal tube sliding through the inky depths, the submariner learns to listen. A touch-screen display in a side room dominated by decommissioned torpedoes provides landlubbers with an aural snapshot of the underwater world. At a finger tap, "Sounds of the Sea" produces the rumble of an undersea earthquake, the drone of overhead aircraft, the high-pitched twitter of beluga whales (aptly nicknamed "canaries of the sea"), the raucous squawking of orcas, and the haunting symphonic songs of humpback whales.

The self-guided tour of the Nautilus, decommissioned in 1980 and berthed at the museum's dock, brings home both the ingenuity of space management and the claustrophobic sacrifices of submariners. It is immediately clear that backpacks are prohibited not for security reasons, but for safety and comfort.

Films like "The Hunt for Red October" might suggest that submarines are relatively roomy, but this first-generation nuclear sub is as tight as the World War II diesel vessels that preceded it. As families clamber through , the elementary schoolchildren seem best suited for the scale of the rooms and the narrow apertures between compartments.

The tour includes crew quarters, the navigation room, and the pilot controls, but not the engine room or the reactor (long since removed). Since the entryway is in the bow, the first stop is the torpedo tubes, literally feet from fold-down bunks for the crew. (It's hard to say whether the torpedoes or the sailors slid more tightly into their beds.) The walk-through is paced by the recorded tour guide, with a new narration beginning as you climb through the narrow hatches between sections or go up and down steep stairs. The spaces are so tight that most landlubbers don't linger. Mannequins are scattered throughout to make the vessel seem inhabited, and even they look cramped. The sub would go to sea for months at a time, but most visitors find 10 minutes plenty long enough.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon, freelance writers in Cambridge, can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.

If You Go

Connecticut River MuseumSteamboat Dock, 67 Main St. Essex, Conn.860-767-8269ctrivermuseum.orgTuesday-Sunday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Adults $7, seniors $6, children ages 6-12 $4. US Navy Submarine ForceMuseum1 Crystal Lake Road, Groton, Conn.800-343-0079; 860-694-3174ussnautilus.org Wednesday-Monday 9 a.m.-4 p.m. through April 15; closed April 16-22 (museum) and April 16-29 (ship). Wednesday-Monday 9-5, Tuesday 1-5 May-October. Free.How to get thereEssex is 125 miles or about 2 1/4 hours from Boston. Take Interstate 90 (Mass. Pike) west to exit 10. Take I-395 south to I-95 south. Take exit 69 (Route 9 to Essex/Hartford), then exit 3 to Essex and follow signs to Connecticut River Museum. From Essex to Groton is 24 miles; retrace route to I-95 north, take exit 86, and follow signs to museum.

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