- Historic Sites
The ‘Holland’ Surfaces
The U.S. Navy’s first submarine was scrapped half a century ago. But now we have been given a second chance to visit a boat nobody ever expected to see again.
April/May 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 3
Now, WITH HIS goal all but realized, Holland began to feel the pinch of government restrictions. He had money, but not the freedom to use it as he wanted. The Navy insisted on a surface speed for the Plunger that meant the ship would have to be powered by a huge, tripleexpansion steam plant; three propellers were demanded where one would have served better. Holland saw that the boat was being overengineered into uselessness (and, in fact, she never did perform properly); he kept on building her but persuaded his backers to pay for another submarine, one that would be his alone.
‘What will the navy require next,” Holland asked, ‘that my boat should climb a tree?”
He completed the plans for his new boat in September of 1896. “I don’t think I can improve on the arrangement or general features of this design …,” he wrote of the Holland VI . At fifty-three feet she was less than two-thirds the length of the Plunger but she carried three Whitehead torpedoes, she had a cruising range of nearly a thousand miles, and she was driven on the surface by a forty-five-horsepower gasoline engine and by batteries when submerged. This arrangement—internal combustion for surface running, electric power for underwater—would be standard on submarines until the nuclear age.
On May 17, 1897, the Holland VI stood on the ways at Lewis Nixon’s Crescent Shipyard in Elizabethport, New Jersey. On her hull, a workman had chalked, “This vessel when launched will never float.” Mrs. Nixon smashed a bottle of champagne on the blunt bow, workmen swung their sledgehammers, and as Holland watched through his thick glasses, the seventy-five-ton boat slid down the ways, drove deep—too deep, it looked —into the water, then bobbed to the surface to ride bravely right at her estimated waterline.
Holland fussed and fussed over her. He might never have another chance like this one, and he wanted to make sure everything was perfect. He tinkered and adjusted until that October, when a workman left for the day without closing a sea valve. The next morning, the Holland VI was on the bottom, full of water. They raised her and pumped her out, but her wiring was soaked. For a month Holland tried with oil stoves and superheaters to dry the motors, but the damp circuitry kept grounding out against the hull. It looked as though the boat might have to be demolished, but then a young electrician with the sturdy engineer’s name of Frank Cable came up with a brilliantly simple solution: reverse the current in the armatures, and the fierce heat would dry the dynamos out from the inside. In a week the Holland VI was ready.
On March 17, 1898, after three weeks of brief preliminary trials, the Holland VI churned out through the scud and drizzle of a stormy St. Patrick’s Day. As Holland watched from the open turret, the sun came lancing down through a rift in the clouds ahead and a rainbow spread its arch beneath the thunderous skies over Staten Island. Against this operatic setting, and with crowds cheering from the shore, Holland took his boat through her first truly successful dive.
During the next few weeks the inventor brought his vessel up to her peak fighting trim: the Holland VI could clip along at eight knots on the surface, seven submerged; her steelplated hull could keep her safe at depths of up to seventy-five feet; and as the original description read, “she is … completely lighted by electricity; has a water-closet; and the crew of 6 men can comfortably live aboard for 40 hours.”
Navy officials came to watch, were impressed, and came to watch some more. In April of 1898, with war with Spain drawing closer, the assistant secretary of the Navy wrote to his boss: “I think the Holland submarine boat should be purchased. … Sometimes she doesn’t work perfectly, but often she does, and I don’t think in the present emergency we can afford to let her slip.—T. Roosevelt.”
No action was taken: it seemed that more demonstrations were necessary. “What will the navy require next,” asked Holland, “that my boat should climb a tree?” The board had not yet reached its decision, he was told again and again. He knew “boards,” he said: they were “long, narrow and wooden. ”
America and Spain went to war. Holland made an offer to the secretary of the Navy. “If the government will transport the boat… to the harbor of Santiago … Mr. Holland will undertake the job of sinking the Spanish fleet. …” The inventor closed with the suggestion, modest enough under the circumstances, that if he succeeded, “he would expect the government to buy his boat.”