Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Greg Jordan

March 28, 2013

How a mountainous hike led to a surprising Civil War submarine sighting

— — What do you do when traffic is backed up and you have to get to a certain spot as quickly as possible? Sometimes the only solution is to get out and start walking. It’s often a pain, but you will notice things while walking that you might never have noticed at all. For instance, you might spot a submarine.

I’ve had to do this more than a few times on behalf of the Daily Telegraph. Traffic on Interstate 77 and Route 460 quickly starts to back up whenever there is a crash. The situation isn’t any better on the secondary roads, either. If anything, the predicament is even worse. There often isn’t any place to park; at least, no place nearby.

Photographer Eric DiNovo and myself had to brace ourselves  when a rock slide north of Bluefield blocked a section of I-77. The state Department of Highways blocked off that section of the interstate and started rerouting traffic when Eric and I reached Exit 1 at John Nash Boulevard. The workers were good enough to let us go through, but we still had to drive past backed-up traffic. Finally, we got as close as we dared go, but it wasn’t close enough. It was time to get out and start hiking.

Fortunately, the day was clear. Unfortunately, the wind was cold and the hike was up hill. We kept going and I kept wondering if we had made a mistake. Finally, we rounded the bend and saw a huge pile of boulders and debris. The trip was worth the effort.

After talking to the people on the scene and calling in some updates to the Telegraph, we headed back to the car. Eric and I determined that we could have driven a little further and saved some mileage on our legs. As usual, I found myself reporting the latest to the curious and stranded motorists. I explained to more than one person what was going on and when they could hope to get moving again. Cars were able to turn around and leave, but tractor-trailers, recreational vehicles and folks towing trailers couldn’t make the turn, so they had to wait.

Then I noticed something on a big flatbed trailer being towed by a large pick-up truck. The thing was long and gray, and I at first thought it was some kind of oil tank. When I got closer, I wondered if it was one of those doomsday bunkers you bury in the ground.

Suddenly, I recognized the thing. I’ve read books about the Civil War, and I realized where I had seen that shape. It was a submarine. Well, it was a replica of a submarine.

The vessel was a full-scale model of the CSS Hunley, a small submarine built for the Confederate Navy during the Civil War. The sub was the first vessel of its type to sink an enemy ship.

The Hunley was primitive compared to the mighty nuclear submarines sailing the seas today. Instead of harnessing the power of the atom, the Confederate sub harnessed the power of its crew. The seated crew members turned hand cranks to run the propeller. Naturally, men exercising like crazy to make their boat go forward need plenty of air. Modern submarines have sophisticated air plants and environmental controls that let them stay submerged for months at a time. The little Hunley had a snorkel, and I don’t think that worked very well. In fact, the sub could barely stay submerged.

I noticed a long pole, or spar, on the replica’s bow. That was the point for the ship’s torpedo. Today subs fire their torpedoes at targets. In contrast, the Hunley was designed to ram its target ship to make the torpedo explode.  Unfortunately, this put the crew dangerously close to the blast. The sub was swamped by the explosion and the entire crew was lost.

The replica’s owner, John Dangerfield, said everything on his sub works. Side panels come off so visitors can sit inside and use the controls. The hand cranks for the propeller, the snorkel, and dive planes all work. When kids get a chance to work those cranks, the propeller “spins like crazy,” he told me. The replica sub was on its way to a festival in Hurricane. Maybe it could come here someday. The fact we have so many Civil War enthusiasts around our region should make it a hit at any festival or reenactment.

Normally we don’t get to see such interesting sights when we hike to and from a crash scene. Most of the time we’re trying to keep an eye on the traffic and not end up with an accident of our own. Hiking a highway is something I wouldn’t recommend, but I have to admit that being able to do so gives me a chance to notice things I wouldn’t otherwise have seen.Until I walked to the rock slide, I never realized that our mountainsides were a tangle of boulders and fallen trees.

I myself and others at the Telegraph have hiked up highways and even up mountains during snow storms and thunderstorms, and those experiences are less than pleasant. However, you might get to see a submarine stuck on the highway. Sometimes the effort brings some unexpected rewards.

Greg Jordan is the Daily Telegraph’s senior reporter. Contact him at gjordan@bdtonline.com

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