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Naval Gazing

One of our first SINHG Trips this fall took us to the old Charleston Navy Yard on the Cooper River in North Charleston, where we enjoyed a private tour with Friends Of The Hunley at Clemson University's Warren Lasch Conservation Center, where the Confederate submarine's restoration continues.

The H.L. Hunley Confederate Submarine (courtesy Friends of the Hunley)

Hidden at the bottom of Charleston Harbor for 130 years, the Hunley was located and raised from the seabed off of Sullivans Island in 2000 and has been reposing in a chemical bath at the Conservation Center ever since while restoration and analysis continues. It's appropriate that this landmark vessel - the first working combat submarine to sink another ship, the Union's USS Housatonic - resides in what became, fifty years after the Hunley's loss, a major supply and repair base for the United States Navy.

The land on the west bank of the Cooper River was originally intended to be Chicora Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, co-creator of New York's Central Park; but in 1901, the city of Charleston agreed to appropriate the land to the federal government for use as a naval base, which remained in operation until until it was decommissioned in 1996.

The naval base, circa 1960

It began life as a dry dock for the repair of naval ships (the dry docks are still there, used by Detyens Shipyard), but began actually building warships in the 1930's and during World War Two, when the keels were laid for two of the largest ships ever built at the yard - the destroyer tenders USS Tidewater and USS Bryce Canyon. A modern descendent of the Hunley, the USS Conger, put in at the base for repairs in 1948, along with German submarines captured during the war that the Navy altered and repaired. At its wartime busiest, the Navy yard employed nearly 26,000 workers.

The Power House (c) S.C. Picture Project

Quite a few of the old naval structures survive at the site, from the impressive 1908 Power House that drove the huge pumps that drained the dry docks, to the crumbling former Marine barracks, the base dispensary, and a restored non-denominational chapel, The Eternal Father Of The Sea.

The Dead House

And there's something even older than the Hunley at the site - the "Dead House", a brick structure dating from the Revolutionary War, when it used by the British as a powder magazine. It's thought the grim name is from a period when the building was used as a temporary morgue.

Today, the Navy Yard's future remains unclear. It's currently owned by a developer who plans a multi-use community with residential and commercial units, including repurposing some of the existing structures; and Clemson has built, alongside the Conservation Center, an energy research center and a graduate studies building. But history goes deep here, and will hopefully be preserved.

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