On St. Patrick’s Day, 1898, the USS Holland (SS-1) made her first successful submerged run. Irish-born American schoolteacher and inventor, John Phillip Holland (1842-1914) is often considered the man who contributed most to the development of the submarine.
The Story of the Holland Submarine by Richard Knowles Morris was told in the January 1960 issue of Proceedings magazine:
The story of SS-l Holland is the story of the birth of the submarine fleet of the United States Navy. Launched 17 May 1897, at Lewis Nixon’s Crescent Shipyard, Elizabethport, New Jersey, the 53-foot 4-inch submersible was the sixth completed boat and at least the ninth important design of the Irishborn American schoolteacher and inventor, John Philip Holland (1842-1914).
Fitting-out operations proceeded slowly that first summer of 1897. Financial support for the private venture of constructing Holland was hard to come by. It must have appeared to would-be investors that a better prospect was the submarine Plunger, government-backed and Holland designed, now nearing completion at the Columbian Iron Works in Baltimore. Plunger called for no risk of their capital to the strange diversion of effort in the private building of another submarine at Elizabethport. But John Holland was already convinced that he could improve on Plunger. This conviction led to the famous Holland.
Near catastrophe struck the little craft on 14 October 1897. A careless workman left a Kingston valve open. The boat sank at dockside. Eighteen hours passed before it could be brought to the surface again. This event precipitated a stringent reorganization within the John P. Holland Torpedo Boat Company. The part-time consulting engineer, Charles A. Morris, long standing friend of Holland’s, was persuaded to assume the duties of full-time superintendent. Days of effort to dry out the electric dynamo failed, yet to replace the motor would mean to dismantle the hull. The Electro-Dynamic Company of Philadelphia, makers of the motor, answered an urgent wire by sending its representative, Frank T. Cable, to Elizabethport. Arriving 26 November, Cable decided the motor could be dried internally by reversing the flow of current through the armatures. Four days later Holland was back in commission and an eminent name was added to the history of submarines.
On 24 February 1898 Holland was moved from Elizabethport down the Arthur Kill to a berth at the Raritan Dry Dock in Perth Amboy. In passage, it was the inventor’s purpose to attract as little attention as possible. The strange little craft, already labelled by the metropolitan press as “the wonder, the terror, and the monster,” caused an unexpected flurry of excitement. With rumors abroad that the governments of both France and Spain had bid for Holland, with tensions over the sinking of Maine at a breaking point and the Spanish cruiser Viscaya in New York Harbor, the navy dispatched the tug Narkeeta and a harbor police boat to watch the movements of Holland. Unaware of the commotion he was causing, John Holland escaped the vigilance of his pursuers and slipped unnoticed to a mooring behind an old canal barge along the Raritan docks.
Not until St. Patrick’s day of ’98 did Holland make her first successful run submerged. Failure to submerge three days earlier had resulted in much trial and error with dry ballast in order to reduce the positive buoyancy in the new waters of operation where the salinity was noticeably higher. By the end of March, the little vessel had ventured into the open waters of Princes Bay and had demonstrated remarkable stability in seas that drove much larger craft to shelter.
The Navy Department took increasing cognizance of the activities about Perth Amboy. On 15 April, Holland performed for Lieutenant Nathan Sargent, whose report led to the first Naval Board assigned to review the trial runs of the submarine. The result of these early attempts to secure official approval was to further refine steering and firing mechanisms.
Again the inventor shifted his site of operations, moving first to the Erie Basin, 50th Street, Brooklyn, and then to the Atlantic Yacht Club yards at the foot of 55th Street. Out of this latter base Holland successfully met some of her most difficult assignments in the busy waters of the Narrows below Bay Ridge and in the open reaches of the Lower Bay. Her fame grew with each trial. During the summer of 1898, Holland’s log registered such personages as Captain Zalinsky, USA, inventor of the dynamite guns carried on the submarine, Lieutenant Commander (later Rear Admiral) W. W. Kimball, USN, staunch advocate of submarine warfare, Count Takashi Sasaki of the Japanese Navy, and Captain Stang of the Royal Norwegian Navy.
The crucial test of the year came on 12 November before a Review Board called by Secretary of the Navy Long, headed by Captain Frederick Rodgers and including Captain “Fighting Bob” Evans of Santiago fame. The Board was impressed with the performance, but the boat’s unpredictable yawing when submerged clearly stood as a major obstacle to official acceptance.
After long debate, John Holland reluctantly abandoned a trade mark found in all his boats and yielded to the more conventional arrangement which brought the propeller inboard of the vertical steering and horizontal diving planes.
As Farnham Bishop wrote:
Like most other inventive geniuses, Holland was not a trained engineer, and it was inevitable that disputes should arise between him and his associates.. . . . His last years were embittered by the belief that the submarines of today (i.e. 1914) were distorted and worthless developments of his original type.
Indeed, a case may be made showing a recent return to the hydrodynamics embodied in the hull lines of Holland (as in the SS-569, Albacore) and a return to the outboard position of the propeller (as in the SS-585, Skipjack). However this may be, the major alterations on Holland took place at Morris Heights on the Harlem River during the winter of 1898-99.
The busy waters of New York Harbor several times brought the submarine close to disaster. The proximity of a large and curious public often hampered work. These factors prompted a further change in the site of operations. On 5-6 June 1899, a month after Holland’s return from Ireland, the boat was towed by the lighter Columbia from Brooklyn ‘ via Long Island Sound and Greenport to New Suffolk, L. I. At the Goldsmith and Tuthill Yard the Holland Torpedo Boat Co. and the newly formed Electric Boat Co. established their base. A marked three-mile course in Little Peconic Bay, east of Little Hog Neck (now Nassau Point) was completed in July, and the perfecting of Holland continued through the remainder of the summer.
Events in the quiet little town of New Suffolk often proved exciting. Cable, in The Birth and Development of the American Submarine (Harper & Brothers, 1924) reported the high spots: the submerged run with Clara Barton aboard, and the 11 October affair, when the crew and guests were overcome by exhaust fumes as Holland glided unmanned into the dock at the Goldsmith and Tuthill basin. Engineer Morris’s diary is replete with these and other details of the trials of that eventful summer.
After the November test before the third Naval Board, Holland left New Suffolk for the Washington Navy Yard on the Potomac, arriving at the capital in the middle of December. En route, the inland canals were lined with spectators. At Annapolis, cadets listened intently to the stories of the crew regarding submarine navigation. Then, on 14 March 1900, a Naval Board of Review, including Admiral George Dewey, watched Holland through her final paces off Mount Vernon. The Navy purchased the submarine, 18 April, and sent it to Newport, R. I., where officials of the Holland Company trained the navy crew. Lt. Harry H. Caldwell, secretary for Admiral Dewey, assumed command at the commissioning ceremonies on 12 October 1900.
Thus Holland became the first submarine of the United States Navy, prototype for the seven A-class boats which followed and the basic design for the initial submarine fleets of Great Britain and Japan. John Philip Holland deserves the title conferred on him by historians: the man who contributed most to the development of the submarine.