Civil War Submarine Used to Harvest Pearls in Panama

Civil War Submarine Used to Harvest Pearls


The submarine was incomplete at war’s end. The Navy, unenthusiastic about the boat during the war, decided not to purchase it. The owners then decided to use it for commercial activities, notably as a means to harvest pearls off Panama.

The endeavor failed. Sub Marine Explorer worked as expected, allowing crews to reach pearl beds as deep as 100 feet below the surface and harvest nearly a ton of pearl oysters on each trip. Uniformly, crews, including its builder Julius H. Kroehl, contracted fever and died shortly afterward.

Kroehl’s creation was beached on an island off Panama for use the next year. It proved impossible to hire men to operate the boat because of the deaths of previous crews (a result of decompression sickness, then unknown) and the pearl beds were fished out. The company went bankrupt. Forgotten, the craft washed out to sea following a hurricane, sinking in shallow waters off Ile San Telmo, the wreck visible at low tide.

By 2001, when Delgado was vacationing at Ile San Telmo, the old wreck had become encrusted with legend as well as corrosion. Locals believed the vessel to be anything from a World War II mini-sub to a poison-laden vessel that destroyed the pearl beds.

More about:“Misadventures of a Civil War Submarine: Iron, Guns, and Pearls,” by James P. Delgado, Texas A&M University Press

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