High Altitude Submarine

By Pam North

There was never a more unlikely location, but at an altitude of 8500 feet above sea level and far away from any significant bodies of water, a submarine was launched on an afternoon in 1898 in a small mountain lake in Gilpin County, Colorado.

The concept of such a vessel was not new, having been envisioned during the Civil War, and designs for submarines had been proposed by various inventors during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. The United States, at war with Spain over the sovereignty of Cuba, was viewing the development of submarines to defend its coastline from possible Spanish invasion.

An engineer named Rufus T. Owens, known for designing the water distribution systems in Central City and Black Hawk, became infatuated with building a seafaring craft, and he hired a pair of local contractors to construct his design secretly in a shed in Central City. The result was a vessel nineteen feet in length, with a center height of five feet, and a width of three and a half feet. It was constructed of hand-hewn, whipsawed lumber in a framework held together by square, handmade nails. Irregularly-sized sheets of iron, soldered together where they joined, covered the exterior. Owens named it the Nautilus, after Jules Verne’s fictional submarine.

A flatbed wagon was hired to transport the finished craft to Missouri Lake, the nearest body of water three miles north of Black Hawk. Owens’ intention was to be aboard his creation for its maiden voyage, but concerned friends, pointing out the danger of an untested underwater descent, convinced Owens that the Nautilus might better be tested bu using rocks rather than himself for ballast. His friends’ intervention proved to be fortunate, as upon entering the small lake on its maiden voyage, the Nautilus sank immediately to the bottom, permanently bringing to an end any submarine-invention aspirations Owens might have entertained. Two years later, the first successful submarine, called the Holland, was launched by the United States Navy.

There is some question as to the seriousness of Owens’ endeavor. If he had intended to submit his design to the Navy, his rather primitive creation appeared to lack any steering or propulsion mechanisms. The ballast used, approximately 1500 pounds of rocks, was a somewhat excessive weight for the trial experiment. Owens made no effort to retrieve his brainchild from the depths of Missouri Lake, and he left Central City permanently a few months later.

The clandestine construction and launching of the submarine resulted in little public knowledge of the craft’s existence, and the passage of time obscured it even further. The partial damage of Missouri Lake by the Chain O’ Mines Company in the 1930s temporarily exposed the submarine (its hatch was stolen by a souvenir hunter), but when the lake was refilled, the vessel was again covered by water and forgotten.

Attention to submarine warfare in World war II prompted Fred DeMandel, one of the few witnesses to the construction of the Nautilus, to attempt to retrieve Owens’ ship. In January of 1944, he found its exact location by drilling holes in the icy surface of Missouri Lake and peering into the water through a glass-bottomed bucket. DeMandel then enlisted the aid of an area trucking company to raise the vessel with a winch. The event, on the 25th of that month, was met with much local fanfare. Central City’s school, courthouse, and many of its businesses were closed, the high school band played, and approximately six hundred spectators were in attendance for the event. DeMandel placed the recovered submarine on display in his Central City museum for a time; then it was sold to William C. Russell, Jr., publisher of the Central City Register-Call, who put the unique artifact into storage in his warehouse. There the submarine, with its 45-year watery submergence jokingly referred to as the “longest dive in history” in the Rocky Mountain News, remains. The death of Russell in 2009 brought the submarine into a sale of items from his estate, and the Gilpin Historical Society purchased it for $5,000 in mid-September, 2010. The submarine’s preservation, estimated to cost another $5,000, is now the task at hand for the Historical Society, and donations for that project are being solicited and accepted as the “SOS (Save Our Sub)” fundraising. Donations for that purpose may be directed to: Gilpin Historical Society, P.O. Box 247, Central City, CO 80427. The submarine will be displayed next year at the History Museum, 228 E. High Street, Central City, CO, beginning the Memorial Day weekend.