It is no secret that the crew compartment of the H. L. Hunley, the world’s first successful combat submarine, was small.
Conservators working to save the pioneering vessel in Charleston have a new understanding of just how cramped and intimidating it must have been for the eight-man crew in 1864 when they cranked the Hunley into world history. Working in the small confines of the roughly 4-foot tall hull, scientists are slowly breaking off the concretion – a layer of sand, sediment, shells and corrosion products – that built up slowly over time while she was lost at sea for over a century.
The concretion completely masked the original surface of one of maritime lore’s greatest artifacts as well as many of its finer operational features.
“The work can be exhausting, but I love this job. I get to watch the submarine come out of its shell and be one of the first people to actually see the crew compartment in over a century. It is really very exciting,” said Liisa Nasanen, Clemson University’s Warren Lasch Conservation Center’s associate director and senior conservator.
The delicate effort to clean the crew compartment has already yielded some interesting finds.
A tooth was found in the concretion on crank position number 3, where it is believed crew member Frank Collins sat. His remains were buried in 2004 alongside his crewmates and others that lost their lives in the testing and development of the Hunley.
At the time of his burial, several teeth were missing from his cranium. Forensic analysis of the skull indicated the teeth were lost after his death from decomposition, meaning the discovery of more human remains was not a totally unanticipated find.
Cleaning the inside is offering a greater understanding of the vessel’s overall operation. The Hunley’s design was more sophisticated and dynamic than originally thought. The flywheel that powered the propeller can now be seen as a clever piece of engineering. It has a system of different size gears that helped enhance the output of the crank-generated power, helping maximize the impact of the crew’s hard work.
The iron crank system was designed to address the vigorous challenges of cranking. Cranking for the length of time needed to reach the enemy target ship was strenuous work and no doubt caused muscle fatigue with blisters and sores. It appears a thin metal tube was wrapped loosely around the crank to allow for easier work. The tube was also covered in a cloth material, likely meant to soften and alleviate the rub on the hands.
The Deconcretion Project
Until recently, the concretion completely covered the vessel both inside and out. It is being removed so that a conservation treatment can be completed to ensure the submarine is preserved for this generation and the ones to come. It has been a multi-year process with several different phases.
First, the exterior of the submarine was cleaned of this encrustation. Then, in 2016, scientists moved their work to clearing it off the interior. They are hoping once the submarine is completely uncovered it will help offer a better understanding of the events that led to the disappearance of the submarine.