Imagine this. It’s Bayou Boogaloo and you’re on the raft you built with your buddies. You plunge your oar into the waters of Bayou St. John and feel it scrape something hard.

What could it be? A hunk of concrete? A stolen car? Or … a submarine?

If you found a sub in these waters, it’d definitely be a story, but it wouldn’t be the first time. Because that distinction goes to a mysterious vessel discovered here way back in the spring of 1878.

Sub in the Bayou

That's when a dredging crew working near the mouth of Bayou St. John discovered a 20-foot-long submarine on the waterway’s floor and dumped it unceremoniously on Lake Pontchartrain’s levee.

The vessel, made of iron, is familiar to New Orleanians who saw it on display in the French Quarter for many years. It's 3 feet wide and 6 feet deep. It has the curved shape of a perch, but it's pointed on both ends with room for three individuals in extremely narrow quarters.

A trio of blades attached to the back of the boat would be hand-propelled by two of the sailors to power it from the inside. On the front, a set of fans could be manipulated by the third seaman to move the vessel in any direction.

The torpedo would be suspended from a wooden pole — approximately 6 feet long — affixed to the front of the submarine.

The vessel sat neglected for nearly two decades, until, by 1895, it was displayed and became a local landmark at an amusement park surrounding nearby Old Spanish Fort.

After a period of neglect in which the sub sat in weeds and a propeller was removed by vandals, the boat was moved to the Camp Nicholls Confederate Home (near today’s Deutsches Haus) to be admired by veterans from 1908 until 1942 when it was acquired by the Louisiana State Museum.

It spent the next half-century on display in and around Jackson Square: in the square, inside the lower Pontalba Building, and under the arcade in the Presbytere. Now it's in Baton Rouge.

Mysterious vessel

So who built the submarine? What’s its name? What purpose did it serve?

The truth is no one knows.

“The answer’s out there someplace,” said Greg Lambousy, who was director of collections at the Louisiana State Museum for about 12 years, and previously exhibits curator. (Now he's director of the New Orleans Jazz Museum.) Lambousy wrote a short paper on the submarine in 2005.

But at the beginning of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln ordered the blockade of all Southern port cities, including New Orleans, which occupied a strategic position near the mouth of the Mississippi River and was larger than the combined population of the four next-largest Confederate cities.

The Confederate military couldn’t compete with the size and strength of the Union navy. “Lincoln had this incredible roaming force,” explained Lambousy. “The South was desperate for a way to disable this overwhelming choke hold on their economy.”

Confederate President Jefferson Davis encouraged the refitting of private vessels to augment his navy, and several New Orleans foundries had the funding and capability to do this work.

But rather than taking on the U.S. fleet head-on, submarine technology — referred to at the time as “infernal machines” and considered by many to be cheating or diabolical — was an increasingly popular option.

The truth is “probably sitting in an archive, or inside someone’s house with a bunch of old documents," Lambousy said. "And who knows what people will find as they review scanned newspaper articles with information that may have been missed or mislabeled the first time around.”

It’s believed the builders of this sub would have known and worked with the men who built the famed (and similarly designed) C.S.S. Hunley — the first submarine to sink a warship. And it’s likely the ship was scuttled so its design wouldn’t fall into the hands of occupying Union forces.

But was it designed to surprise and attack Union gunboats on Lake Pontchartrain? Or was it a test model for what was one day meant to be a larger vessel?

The submarine is still shrouded in mystery, but the team at the Louisiana State Museum have been able to answer some questions. In 1998, they moved the vessel to Baton Rouge where it underwent major conservation efforts. Today, we understand how a three-person team inside the sub would have navigated and used hand-power to steer the ship. And we have a better idea how it may have delivered an explosive.

Lambousy would have loved for the submarine to stay in New Orleans, but in Baton Rouge at the Capitol Park Museum, it's protected from the elements and can be viewed by Louisianans for generations to come.

“It represents a major milestone in the evolution of the submarine,” he said, “and it’s an important part of — not only military strategy — but also of how we explore our oceans and rivers. This is evidence of Louisiana’s role in that evolution, and I think that’s pretty neat for us to see.”


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