Sub's Final Mission Still Incomplete

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Group Remains Hopeful for Maritime Museum

By Jennifer Feals

Seacoast Sunday, Sunday, May 9, 2010

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]

Norm Bower of Kingston, who spent 9 1/2 years aboard the USS Albacore, tours the vessel, which has been at its current Market Street location for 25 years.
[Rich Beauchesne Photo]

PORTSMOUTH -- Twenty-five years ago, USS Albacore made its last journey to its resting place on Market Street.

On May 4, 1985, the 1,200-ton submarine maneuvered through a dismantled railroad bridge and a cut in a four-lane road, was floated into position and on Oct. 2, 1985, was set on a concrete cradle at the center of Albacore Park.

"Thousands of people" gathered to watch, said Norman Bower, who witnessed the move from Memorial Bridge. Bower, a crewmate of Albacore, was supposed to ride the submarine for the move but was unable to make it to Portsmouth Naval Shipyard because of the traffic that day. Albacore had rested at the shipyard for one year before her move after returning to New Hampshire from Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in September 1972.

"Riding the sub was what you wanted to be doing that day," Bower said.

Albacore was built at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, the first Navy-designed vessel with a true underwater cylindrical-shaped hull, which has become the standard for today's submarines. Albacore served from 1953 to 1972 without ever carrying a weapon or going to war. Albacore, which was built for experimental purposes, was used for testing control systems, dive brakes, sonar equipment, escape mechanisms and various innovative theories.

The submarine was moved to Market Street — a parcel just under 10 acres — with the intention of creating a maritime museum there. Albacore Park opened in August 1986 and the foundation for a museum was even subsequently dug, but the museum has yet to be constructed.

Businessman and philanthropist Joe Sawtelle, who worked tirelessly to move Albacore to Market Street and envisioned the maritime museum there, passed away 10 years ago. With his death, went his dreams of the museum, said members of the Port of Portsmouth Maritime Museum Association.

"When he died, there wasn't really anybody else in the family who wanted to carry on the drive for a museum," said PPMMA member Russ Van Billiard. "Joe was a real student of maritime related things. That was really his passion. If he had stayed alive, he would have found a way to do it. He found a way to do this (Albacore Park)."

PPMMA, which manages Albacore Park and owns the site, last year covered the museum's unused foundation. "It was a monstrosity and a danger to kids," Van Billiard said.

While PPMMA would love to see a use come to the unused piece of the property — notably another nonprofit organization — the trouble comes down to money and interest. Before Sawtelle's death, plans for the Portsmouth Children's Museum to build on the property fell through as did a proposal for the Greater Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce to join with the United Way of the Greater Seacoast there.

"It's a shame. This would have been an ideal place, Van Billiard said, adding the city is in the process of reinvigorating the Market Street area around Albacore Park, with an eye toward creating a gateway entrance to Portsmouth. "It's too bad."

When the chamber was looking at the property, plans included a display room for maritime mementos, Van Billiard said. While there is currently a "mini-museum" at Albacore Park, he said, it could house so many more items if there were just more space. There is also a small maritime museum at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, but Van Billiard said it is unfortunately not accessible by the general public.

Van Billiard said the PPMMA still hopes something will happen with the property, but it cannot afford to build itself.

"If somebody stepped up and said we'd like to come up with something, and we felt they were a good candidate, we would be very interested in working something out with them," he said.

PPMMA members said they are struggling themselves to "rejuvenate" the park. In the past year, they have repaved the parking lot, repaired outside lights and fixed a roof leak in the building. Projects are funded through two sources — routine maintenance expenses are funded through the park's income from visitors and members while larger projects, such as repairing the roof leak, are funded through an endowment from the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.

PPMMA members estimate Albacore Park brings in $105,000 to $115,000 annually, with approximately 22,000 visitors a year. In addition to supporting routine maintenance, this supports the park's one permanent employee and one seasonal part-time employee.

PPMMA receives $25,000 to $30,000 quarterly from the endowment, which according to guidelines must go toward maintenance and upkeep of the property. This appropriation is new to the PPMMA within recent years.

"Now that we have this coming in quarterly, we can begin to say we have this much we're accruing and how much money needs to be spent," Van Billiard said. "It's a lifesaver for us."

Friends of the Albacore, a group of the submarine's former sailors, also support making the park a better place to visit, Bower said. The group recently installed a push-button system through the park, where visitors can hit red buttons at various stations of Albacore and hear crew members tell the story.

"They tell you what went on there and what went wrong," Bower said. "Most of the people who tour the boat have never seen a submarine outside, much less inside. We started with tour guides and it became difficult to have that many people inside. Now people can come in on their own and hear and see what happened inside."

PPMMA is in the process of ranking other maintenance projects that will be required in coming years. For instance, the banking on the starboard side of Albacore is giving way and will need to be reconstructed. PPMMA is having a company evaluate the scope of that work and how much it would cost.

It's a labor of love for PPMMA members who enjoy continuing to showcase Albacore for members of the community and beyond.

"It's really a monument to the guys that operated it, the people that built it at the shipyard and the people that designed it. All of them," Van Billiard said. "People can't visit the shipyard, but you can come here and learn a lot about what happened there."

Albacore Park includes a visitor's center with books and submarine gifts. Adjacent is the Memorial Garden, a tribute to all crew and officers who have been lost in the submarine service.

At a glance

A Memorial Day Service will be held at Albacore Park's Memorial Garden beginning at 10 a.m. Monday, May 31.

On May 21-23, surviving Albacore crewmates will visit Portsmouth for a reunion that includes a visit to the submarine, casual get-togethers, and a tour of the shipyard.

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