When the Road Parted for Albacore

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By J. Dennis Robinson

Herald Sunday, Sunday, May 9, 2010

[The following article is courtesy of the Herald Sunday and Seacoast Online.]

USS Albacore, AGSS 569, is moved toward its final berth at what is to become Albacore Park (at top of photo) in May, 1985. A cut was made through the railroad spur and Maket Street Extension to move the submarine.
[Photo by Ralph Morang]

May 09, 2010 2:00 AM -- It was my first legitimate senior moment. I was hoeing out a filing cabinet recently when I found a commemorative brochure from the day they hauled USS Albacore onto dry land in 1985. It was a nice little booklet, not badly written. I read all the way to the back page before I discovered the thing was written by me. Ouch! Now I recall touring the "fastest sub in the world" when it was tied up at the Kittery shipyard and still floating.

In the same folder I found my notes from the historic haul-out day. I was apparently working both ends of the field back then, producing promotional materials for the planned maritime museum that never got built, and covering the story for a weekly newspaper that no longer exists. People said, back then, that philanthropist Joe Sawtelle was crazy for attempting to drag a submarine onto dry land. They were almost right. The great metal whale almost got stuck halfway.

You can learn the whole story of the historic sub and how it was saved by visiting the Albacore Museum on Market Street Extension. Twenty-five years later it is still going strong. But unless you were there, you cannot imagine what a freaky event it was. Real history is ragged with bumps and sharp ends. The brochure tells us what was supposed to happen. Here are the bits and pieces of reality I assembled from my notes.

USS Albacore Journal

May 15, 1985

7:15 a.m. — Mark Kelliher and his assistant, Gail, of the Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce have set up a media command post. Both are wearing Albacore sweatshirts that say simply, "The Move." There must be 500 doughnuts in the racks by the door. There are stacks of Albacore T-shirts, tote bags, hats, buttons, balloons and booklets. We can only hope the submarine is as ready to move as the souvenir stands. Mark has a doughnut in one hand and a walkie-talkie in the other. He's talking into the thing now:

"Control to Area A. Control to Area A. Got enough posters out there? ...;No the bumper stickers didn't come in on time." General Patton should have so much control. People are boarding the Viking Sun for the escort cruise.

7:35 a.m. — It's a helluva long way from one side of Market Street to the other when the street is sliced in half. To get to the press tent on the far end of "the cut" means hopping a ride in the Albacore supply truck. A hundred volunteers have gathered on the hill where the hotel is supposed to go. Some people have been working since 5 a.m. Others are still up from the VIP party the night before. We bomb down Maplewood Avenue, cut over to Woodbury Ave., and buzz up Market Street. Former real-life Albacore crew members are gathered near the press tent swapping stories. Their submarine is about to be hauled from the sea to open land.

8:15 a.m. — The Cineworks film crew needs power to shoot their documentary. "We killed the power yesterday," says someone in a hard hat. "No one told us." "Get the transformer going," says another person with an "Official" Albacore pass. Five minutes later the electricity flows.

8:39 a.m. — "The sub is moving!" someone shouts. "The sub is moving!"

8:45 a.m. — Helicopters buzzing over the press tent. It's cloudy and brisk. Men in a barge are taking depth readings in the channel that has been cut through the road so the submarine can slide through. Someone announces that he needs 19.5 feet and they don't have enough draught. It's going to be tight. Coffee is on everyone's mind.

Life imitates art. As people line up on the interstate the scene begins to look exactly like the illustration on the souvenir T-shirts. Gives me a weird feeling of deja vu. Have I moved a sub before?

8:55 a.m. — The Albacore has been towed from Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and is waiting patiently outside the railroad trestle bridge. The "569" on the sail is easily readable. People with special passes are crossing the yellow barrier ribbons and standing on spongy mud plateaus.

9 a.m. — A voice on the walkie-talkie estimates the crowd count at 2,000. A guy in a military uniform and a beret tries to push everybody back, but we want to stay where the view is best.

"I saw one of these guide wires snap once," one shipyard worker is loudly telling another. "It lashed out and cut a dockworker clean in half!" On hearing this the crowd migrates back behind the yellow line.

9:15 a.m. — The sub has been turned around in the little river basin and its tail points toward the channel opening. The 27-foot wide sub has to fit through a 30-foot wide notch in the broken road. This engineering feat suddenly seems impossible. "I've bitten off all my fingernails," says a key member of the planning team. Since I've got fingernails left, I start chewing.

9:20 a.m. — Eight-year-old Robbie is up to his ankles in smelly mud. His mother, Terri Beyer, who masterminded much of this historic affair, tells him to get out of the muck. She looks calm.

9:22 a.m. — Dick Gallant, the chief Albacore fund-raiser, is explaining the upcoming maneuver. Once through the railway bridge, the sub will cut 30 degrees, he says. I bite another fingernail. The first pre-summer bugs begin flickering over the mud flats. They know something big is going on.

9:35 a.m. — "She's comin'!" somebody finally shouts, "Mommy, I wanna ride on da Al-ba-cwor," says a kid with a blue balloon. But this is the Albacore's last ride.

9:39 a.m. — The bloated back is halfway through the bridge. The Undersecretary of the Navy is due in five minutes according to a police radio. The sun dips in. "They just hit the trestle bridge," one volunteer says into the walkie-talkie.

9:45 a.m. — Strong scent of sugar mixed with diesel fuel. A big cake with a submarine on top is sitting alone in the VIP tent. It's a black sub on green wavy frosting with red, white and blue flowers. The hot dog stand opens and I get the first one off the grill.

10 a.m. — Waiting. The whole world is waiting. Not much talking. "It's just like pulling a big tuna," some guy whispers. Perhaps, if the tuna weighs tons and tons, is made of metal and is stuck in the mud.

10:30 a.m. — I hop a ride back over to the interstate side. A dozen pleasure craft waiting. Four hundred people on the Viking Sun are waiting; 5,000 onlookers are waiting. Sub is almost through the railroad bridge. A man on the peak of the highway shouts like a Lamaze father: "Push, baby! Push harder. You can do it!"

11:25 a.m. — The sub is through, but stuck again. "The stem fin is definitely stuck on something," says Marsha from the chamber over the walkie-talkie. People with radios are getting blow-by-blow details from three radio stations all parked next to them on the bridge.

11:30 a.m. — I hitch a ride on the back of a Griffin Construction truck that sloshes through a foot of mud. Now I'm back on the river by the press tent. "Dick, go get that D65 dozer," a construction worker says. Workers try hauling on a huge yellow rope. Yes, mere men are trying to pull a beached submarine. One falls hip deep in the muck. The crowd moans.

11:45 a.m. — Still stuck in the muck. "Can the chief help you with the small boat?" an engineer shouts from shore. "Not unless he's real strong and 30 feet tall," comes the frustrated reply.

12:10 p.m. — Cold and windy. The Coast Guard leaves. The sub is still not positioned in its cradle. Estimates suggest it will be three hours more. The Undersecretary is stuck on the wrong side of the cut. "Someone go get him," an official shouts.

12:30 p.m. — I take a break in my downtown third-floor apartment. I fall asleep and miss the balloons, the cake, and the party at the Warehouse Restaurant.

3:30 p.m. — The sub is resting, too. It looks huge in the teeny man-made channel. People are watching silently. Something big has almost happened, but not quite.

4:10 p.m. — Exhausted volunteers are gathering back at Command Central. The sub needs to be refloated, later. It's going to be difficult, but eventually the thing will move the last few yards to its final resting place. There are two cases of beer, but few takers. People are happy, but pooped.

4:20 p.m. — Heading home. A lady pulls up in her car. "Have you heard anything about a big submarine being moved?" I point down the road. Albacore's first tourist has arrived.

(Copyright 2010 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. Robinson is editor and owner of the history Web site SeacoastNH.com and a regular Monday contributor to the Portsmouth Herald.)

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