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Misadventures of a Civil War Submarine

Iron, Guns, and Pearls

James P. Delgado

Publication Year: 2012

In 2001, while vacationing on Panama’s Pacific coast, maritime archaeologist James P. Delgado came upon the hulk of a mysterious iron vessel, revealed by the ebbing tides in a small cove at Isla San Telmo. Local inquiries proved inconclusive: the wreck was described as everything from a sunken Japanese "suicide" submarine from World War II to a poison-laden "craft of death" that was responsible for the ruin of the pearl beds, decades before.   His professional interest fully aroused, Delgado would go on to learn that the wreck was the remains of one of the first successful deep-diving submersibles, built in 1864 by Julius H. Kroehl, an innovator and entrepreneur who initially sought to develop his invention for military use during the Civil War. The craft’s completion coming too late for that conflict, Kroehl subsequently convinced investors that it could be used to harvest pearls from the Pacific beds off Panama, in waters too deep for native pearl divers to reach.   In Misadventures of a Civil War Submarine, Delgado chronicles the confluence of technological advancement, entrepreneurial aspiration, American capitalist ambition, and ignorance of the physiological effects of deep diving. As he details the layers of knowledge uncovered by his work both in archival sources and in the field excavation of Kroehl’s ill-fated vessel, Delgado weaves the tangled threads of history into a compelling narrative. This finely crafted saga will fascinate and inform professional archaeologists and researchers, naval historians, students and aficionados of maritime exploration, and interested general readers.

Published by: Texas A&M University Press

Series: Ed Rachal Foundation Nautical Archaeology Series


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Title Page

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pp. i-viii


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pp. ix-xiii

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pp. xi-xviii

The genesis of this book was the chance discovery in 2001 of Julius Kroehl’s incredible, and then forgotten, craft, Sub Marine Explorer, on the edge of the beach at Isla San Telmo in Panama’s Archipiélago de las Perlas. Little did I realize then, on vacation and standing on a beach unequipped and unprepared for documenting what turned out to be one...

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Preface: Captain Nemo's Submarine on Robinson Crusoe's Island

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pp. xix-xxxii

The island sits on the edge of the Bay of Panama, its western shore facing the open Pacific. Known as Isla San Telmo, it is the last outpost of dry land— or the first—that a sailor sights when sailing from or to the fabled port of Panama. The name is strangely appropriate, for St. Elmo...

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1. Kleindeutschland

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pp. 1-13

Klaipeda, the hometown of Julius Kroehl, is a small city of just over 187,000 people. It is a busy place, with ships loading and discharging cargoes 24 hours a day, year-round, in this ice-free eastern Baltic harbor. It is Lithuania’s only port. Until the end of World War II, Klaipeda was the German settlement of Memel. Memel once...

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2. Americans Discover the World Below

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pp. 14-29

Educated nineteenth-century Americans knew that the world beneath the rivers, lakes, and oceans was a strange, terrible, and yet marvelous place, filled with creatures fantastic and treasures waiting to be extracted through the technological triumph of human, and ideally, American genius. The history of European...

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3. Rivals beneath the River

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pp. 30-44

The use of submarine armor and diving bells came to the forefront in clearing obstructions to navigation on the oceanic and river routes to the great port of New York. For nearly two centuries, ships had risked hitting shoals and rocks in the river. And they...

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4. A Submarine Engineer at War

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pp. 45-63

With the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861, the talents of men like Julius Kroehl were required by both sides. A limited number of opportunities existed, however, and the key to securing a contract, or a commission, was perseverance and self-promotion, as well as having friends or family in positions...

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5. The Pacific Pearl Company

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pp. 64-82

Discouraged and sick, Julius Kroehl left Washington and made his way to brother Henry’s home at 42 Seventh Avenue in New York. Henry’s business was thriving, and he and Cornelia and their children turned a bedroom over to...

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6. Panama

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pp. 83-134

Longstanding American interest in dominating the natural resources of the Pacific, as well as an innate Yankee desire to extend American hegemony into the Pacific, had both inspired and abetted the Pacific Pearl Company’s decision to send Julius Kroehl and the...

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7. Requiem

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pp. 135-151

After Julius Kroehl’s death from fever on September 9, 1857, the US consul in Panama, Thomas Kilby Smith, dispatched two consular officers to inventory Kroehl’s effects, which they did on the 10th.1 Consul Smith sent the inventory to Washington along with a letter on September 21, noting that “Mr. Kroehl made a will...

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8. Archaeological Examination of Sub Marine Explorer

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pp. 152-166

The archaeological evidence suggests that sometime in the fall of 1869, Sub Marine Explorer’s last crew pulled it up on the beach in a small cove at Isla San Telmo, as they had most likely done the year before. It was standard marine practice in the nineteenth...

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9. Sub Marine Explorer’s Context, Condition, and Options

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pp. 167-186

After three field seasons and seven years of research and analysis, it is clear that Sub Marine Explorer is indeed an evolutionary “branch” in the family tree of submarine development. Explorer is, as Baird noted in 1903, a link between the diving bell and the submarine, borrowing her basic systems configuration for

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Appendix 1: Anatomy of Sub Marine Explorer

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pp. 187-213

Between 2001 and 2008, documentation and analysis of Sub Marine Explorer slowly yielded a detailed sense of the construction and characteristics of this early American submarine. In 2007 a full set of interpretive reconstruction drawings were completed with John...

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Appendix 2: W. W. W. Wood’s Report on Sub Marine Explorer

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pp. 214-220

Under date of June 17th 1864 I had the honor to receive a communication from the Department authorizing me to examine a Submarine Boat in process of construction by Julius H. Kroehl, Esq. 32 Pine Street, New York, and report to the Department. Under

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Appendix 3: Inventory of the Personal Effects of Julius Kroehl, 1867

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pp. 221-224

After Julius Kroehl’s death in Panama, the US consul there forwarded an inventory of the effects taken from Kroehl’s hotel room after his death. It is a rare and tantalizing look at Kroehl. Some of the items listed are both exciting and frustrating in what they must...


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pp. 225-256


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pp. 257-270


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pp. 271-278

E-ISBN-13: 9781603443814
E-ISBN-10: 1603443819
Print-ISBN-13: 9781603444729
Print-ISBN-10: 1603444726

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 64 b&w. 3 maps. Bib. Index.
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Ed Rachal Foundation Nautical Archaeology Series
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OCLC Number: 794240616
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Misadventures of a Civil War Submarine

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Subject Headings

  • Kroehl, Julius, 1820-1867.
  • Sub Marine Explorer -- History.
  • Pacific Pearl Company -- History.
  • Engineers -- United States -- Biography.
  • German-Americans -- United States -- Biography.
  • Submersibles -- History.
  • Shipwrecks -- Panama -- Pearl Islands -- History -- 19th century.
  • Pearl industry and trade -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Pearl industry and trade -- Panama -- Pearl Islands -- History -- 19th century.
  • United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Naval operations -- Submarine.
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