The Hunt For The Alligator
Buffeted by high winds and stormy seas off the coast of Cape Hatteras, the unmanned USS Alligator - the Navy's first submarine - sank to the bottom of the ocean. The year was 1862, and ever since the Navy has been trying unsuccessfully to get it back.
Collaborating closely with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) and a host of other organizations, the Navy has helped organize and conduct the "Hunt for the Alligator," an ongoing campaign begun in May of 2002 to find and recover the legendary vessel.
In August of 2004, a ten-person expedition team led by scientists from the NOAA, the Office of Naval Research, and East Carolina University carefully surveyed the area off Cape Hatteras, N.C. where the Alligator's 47-foot, green hull is thought to lie.
In September of 2005, a second Alligator expedition team set out to follow up on promising discoveries from the previous year, but as yet, the elusive boat's whereabouts still remain a mystery.
To commemorate the historic "Hunt for the Alligator" and to help raise funds for future search and recovery operations, three members of the Navy's Atlantic Submarine Fleet decided to have a special "Alligator" coin minted in 2005.
"We thought that a coin would be a great way to raise awareness about the Alligator's fascinating history," said Chief Phillip Hogge, who led the effort to have the distinctive piece created. Chief Hogge is 3M/MRMS Coordinator for Commander Naval Submarine Forces, based in Norfolk, Virginia.
The design for the coin's obverse was adapted from artwork originally created by a Navy affiliate organization with an interest in preserving the boat's legacy. It features a caricature of an alligator in full Navy dress and clutching the Navy trident. Depicted below is an artist's rendering of the USS Alligator.
"This design was exactly what we were looking for the front our coin. The only change we had to make was to eliminate the date because we wanted to make this coin available for more than just one year," said Chief Hogge.
In fact, the coin, which was created by Seattle-based Northwest Territorial Mint - a private company that specializes in designing and creating custom-minted coins and medallions - is still being sold to raise money for the Alligator recovery project.
While the design on the obverse is certainly captivating, the content on the coin's reverse is even more intriguing, providing a hint of the unusual circumstances surrounding the USS Alligator's origins.
Inscribed on the back of the coin is an excerpt from a cryptic letter written in 1862 by Brutus De Villeroi, the boat's chief designer, to President Abraham Lincoln, which begins: "I propose to you a new arm of war."
De Villeroi's letter is only one piece of a fascinating story filled with countless twists and turns.
Constructed in secrecy, the Alligator's cover was blown in 1861 when alert members of the Philadelphia harbor police, acting on reports from concerned citizens about unusual activities on the waterfront, seized a partially submerged "infernal machine" that had been spotted moving slowly down the Deleware River.
Baffled by the curious looking 30-foot iron tube they had just pulled from the water, the police turned it over to Navy for further inspection. After examining the device and interviewing De Villeroi at length, the Navy concluded that this strange vessel was indeed operational, and seemed convinced that it could provide Union forces with a key tactical advantage.
Upon the Navy's recommendation, construction was begun immediately on a larger version of De Villeroi's original design. Approximately 180 days later, the refitted and redesigned Alligator was turned loose in the waters near the Philadelphia Navy Yard.
Several months later, the boat that had held such promise met its untimely demise. After missions in the Chesapeake Bay, as the USS Alligator was being towed through the waters of the Atlantic Ocean in preparation for an attack on Charleston Harbor, it was cut loose and lost forever.
On April 2, a fierce storm forced the crew of the USS Sumpter to cut the unmanned Alligator adrift. The crew hoped to be able to return to recover the boat once the wind and waves had subsided. But when they did commence a search for the abandoned Alligator a few days later, she was no where to be found. The only conclusion they could reach after hours of searching was that the boat had sunk to the bottom.
It would be forty years before the Navy launched another submarine. Nearly a century and a half later, the Navy is still wondering exactly what happened to the USS Alligator and it is committed to reaching a definitive conclusion.
As for the coin commemorating the "Hunt for the Alligator," Chief Hogge hopes that it will continue to spark interest in what he believes is "...one of the best stories in U.S. Navy history."