USS ALBACORE - "Forerunner of the Future" - AGSS 569 - Pioneering Research Vessel
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Albacore Park

Saving the Albacore

On October 1, 1972, Albacore was decommissioned. Her unreliable pancake engines had finally caught up with her and test operations were severely curtailed and eventually canceled. Plans to replace the pancake diesel engines would have required adding a 12-foot section to the hull. The cost of such a modification and the resulting increase in drag was unacceptable.

Albacore at InActShipFac

Albacore was towed to the Inactive Ship Facility (InActShipFac) at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. There she languished for seven years until the Navy Sub-Board of Inspection and Survey in December recommended that "she be stricken from the Naval Register of Ships". In April of 1980, the Chief of Naval Operations advised the Secretary of the Navy that "The Navy has no further requirement for this ship as an operational R&D platform" and that "authority is requested to dispose of Albacore as a target of destruction for experimental purposes." On May 1, 1980, Albacore was stricken from the Navy List.

While the Navy was considering how to usefully send Albacore to a watery grave, other forces were in motion to return her to her place of birth. Joseph Sawtelle, a leader in organizing the Portsmouth Marine Society, was exploring the possibility of forming a maritime museum in Portsmouth. He had acquired property as a possible site for the museum and was considering ways to get the project off the ground. He was advised to get a center piece - a real ship.

William Keefe, a vice mayor of Portsmouth and a city counselor, had brought the Tall Ships to Portsmouth in 1981. A chance meeting with Russell Van Billiard, who had seen Albacore in Philadelphia, convinced Keefe to take on the project of bring Albacore home. She was small, conventionally powered, and a non-combatant submarine that could serve as a monument to the people who designed built, maintained and manned her.

What started out as the Bring Back the Albacore Committee became the nonprofit Portsmouth Submarine Memorial Association (PSMA). The group faced four challenges: To raise necessary funds; to get the Navy to release the Albacore to the group; to find a suitable site; and to determine how to move her to her display site.

The property Joe Sawtelle held would not be suitable for displaying Albacore. A search of waterfront property failed to identify a suitable piece of land along the Piscataqua River. However, a possible solution was to move the Albacore onto a dry land site. What better way to display Albacore's sleek hull, X-configured stern and counter-rotating propellers than by having her completely out in the open and visible. Joe Sawtelle located a parcel of land at the intersection of the Route 1 By-Pass and Market Street that belonged to the Maine-New Hampshire Interstate Bridge Authority. When approached, the Authority Board agreed that this was an appropriate use of the land and wound up selling the land to the Association.

The Navy told the association that they must show they had the financial resources to complete the project before the Navy would consider releasing Albacore to them. Cost estimates ranged from .6 to 1.6 million dollars. No public funds were available so all monies had to be raised from private contributions. The public response was overwhelming and over $400,000 was raised. Commitments from two large donors brought the total to $758,000 and, taking a $300,000 mortgage on the property, the funding was set.

With a site, funding and public support, the Maine and New Hampshire congressional delegations, the Navy and Navy Secretary John Lehman were approached. After a lot of paperwork and many meetings, both houses of Congress passed the necessary bill to release Albacore to the Association and on November 7, 1983 President Ronald Reagan signed the bill. However, the Naval Sea Systems Command, the final authority to consent to releasing Albacore, did not do so until just hours before Albacore began its move to its final site in May of 1985.

The Move

The PSMA had approval to take possession of Albacore. Now they faced the problem of getting the boat from the InActShipFac in Philadelphia to Portsmouth and to its ultimate resting place. The Navy could not free one of its tug boats to move the boat but the Army could. A reserve Army component took on the movement as a training exercise. In April of 1984, the Navy briefly turned custody of a Navy submarine over to the Army Reserve. After a careful pre-tow inspection by the tug's skipper Warrant Officer Mark Anthony, the Army tug Okinawa took Albacore under tow for the 575 mile, 70 hour trip to Portsmouth.

Under tow by tug Okinawa

Albacore caused a problem for the tug. Whenever the tug slowed down, Albacore with her low drag would continue on and try to overtake the tug. The 5 knot average speed was lower than hoped for and heavy seas and high winds led to a transit of the Cape Cod Canal instead of going around the Cape. A strong current in the Canal slowed the transit speed down to about 4 knots.

Transiting Cape Cod Canal

Heavy seas caused the planned early morning rendezvous with a local Portsmouth-based tug off Gunboat Shoal buoy to be missed.

Arrival at Fort Constitution

A late morning transfer of the tow did take place and Albacore was moved to Berth 7 next to the Naval Reserve Center at the shipyard.

Ship and Site Preparations

The Naval Reserve Center took over the Albacore. Any classified items or systems were either covered up or removed as NAVSEA directed. Depth and speed indicators and ballast tank systems were restored to working order for her final move. During their drill periods, the reservists invested countless hours of training time in preparing the boat for its final move. The shipyard provided a lot of support, also. Albacore was their baby and they wanted the best for her. The time and effort donated to getting Albacore ready conserved PSMA funds.

Gene Allmendinger, a professor of naval architecture at the University of New Hampshire and a member of the PSMA, designed a set of reinforced concrete cradles that would serve as her supports on dry land.

Concrete cradle design

The problem was how to get her there. The final resting site was a quarter of a mile from the river and 27 feet above sea level. Of the three different methods considered, the one selected was a marine railway. Albacore would be floated onto a specially designed cradle which would be moved on rollers on twin tracks. A heavy duty winch would pull the submarine laidened cradle out of the water and up a ramp.

Marine Railway ready for outhaul

A similar system has been used to dry dock small ships and it was a proven system. To get the boat from the Piscataqua River to the cradle, it would be necessary to remove a railroad trestle, cut through a four lane highway and dredge a channel to the end of the marine railway. Gaining permission and approvals to do all this was a major task with over 20 separate permits and approvals required. A complicating factor was that the move had to occur at the time of the highest monthly tide. Finally, all permits and authorizations were in hand and, on May 4, 1985, the process of moving Albacore to her final resting place began.

Off to a Good Start, But....

Entering rail cut en route to highway cut

The channel had been dredged, the trestle removed and the highway breached. Albacore passed stern first through the gap in the railroad and began a sideways maneuver of several hundred feet to line up with the highway cut. Her lower stern fins went aground in the mud and high tide came and went before she could be gotten free.

Nearing marine railway

With just minutes to spare, she was lined up over the cradle when a major problem arose. A protective cap on the end of her propeller-less propeller shaft prevented Albacore's stern from mating up exactly with the cradle.

Positioned over the railway cradle

With the tide going out, a decision was made to go ahead and land Albacore on the cradle and pull her out anyway. A winch failure postponed the movement until the next day. On the following day, the repaired winch slowly moved the boat and cradle perhaps 30 feet before disaster struck. With the full weight of the submarine on it, the beams of the cradle buckled and the cradle slipped off the tracks. At the next high tide, the boat was moved back as far as possible from the river and allowed to settle in the mud as the tide receded.

Plan B?

There was no back up plan. The submarine could not be moved without cutting the highway again and taking down the railroad trestle. The only other option seemed to be to cut up the boat and haul it away in pieces. And that was not an acceptable solution.

For months Albacore would lie in the mud like some oversized beached whale while possible engineering solutions were evaluated. The plan finally adopted was to build a large coffer dam, or bath tub, around the submarine, fill it with water, float the boat and pull it to the back end of the tub. By building ever higher walls around the boat, a series of canal locks would lift the submarine and allowed her to move inland toward her final destination.

The Last Move

Deciding upon a method for moving Albacore was the easy part. Now began the permitting process which entailed convincing the Army Corps of Engineers, among others, that the coffer dams would hold water and not collapse. With the water level in the final coffer dam 6 1/2 feet above the Route 1 By-Pass, the Corps had to be satisfied that the water would be contained and that there was a very low risk of a blow out and catastrophic flooding. The University of New Hampshire School of Engineering provided technical assistance in providing an analysis of soil mechanics, structural geometry and the system for lining the coffer dam with poly sheeting to minimize water leakage.

The beached whale in her cofferdam

Filling the coffer dams with water was another problem. The available pumps did not have the volume capacity. Walter Pratt of Rensselaer, NY donated and delivered free of charge 12 huge pumps. Another problem to be solved was that the pumps would run out of gas every three hours and they would need to be running 24 hours a day. Buzz Hanscom, owner of a local fuel company, loaded up one of his tanker trucks and kept the pump tanks filled and never charged a penny.

In position over the concrete cradle

With all details complete, it took three days of round-the-clock operations to complete three floods and lifts and move Albacore into position. With the water level falling, Albacore settled perfectly on her concrete cradle at 4:30 pm on October 3, 1985. She was finally home.

Getting Ready for Visitors

Forward entry brow and hut

Having Albacore in place was not the final step. A refurbished, working periscope was provided by the Navy. She needed her counter rotating propellers mounted, two holes cut in the hull for visitor entry and exit doors, the hull sandblasted and painted, and modification of internal electrical wiring to accommodate shore power. A large group of volunteers, many from the Portsmouth shipyard, did all the work.

Getting her ready for visitors

The shipyard was and still is today a central factor in the community. Albacore was a creation of theirs and they took great pride in their workmanship. It took almost a year before everything was ready and Albacore was opened to the public on August 30, 1986.

Today

Albacore sits in dignified silence on her concrete cradle alongside the Route 1 By-Pass. About every five years, her hull gets a fresh coat of paint. Volunteers from submarines in overhaul at the nearby shipyard provide the labor. The Park throws a cookout for the volunteers afterward.

A small Visitor's Center building is the starting point for touring Albacore. The Center has a display of submarine memorabilia and sells submarine souvenirs and books. In 2005, an audio tour system was put in place outside on the park grounds and inside Albacore. The tour provides visitors with information about Albacore's unique external and internal features and relates experiences of some of her former crew members.

Near the Visitor's Center is a Memorial Garden which honors the sacrifices of those submariners who gave their lives in service to their country.