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What's up with the odd submarines found sunk in Chicago waters?
May 13, 2010  – part 1 of 2 parts

Dear Cecil:

In Oddball Illinois: A Guide To Some Really Strange Places, Jerome Pohlen mentions two odd submarines sunk in Chicago waters. One was salvaged with the skeletons of a man and a dog inside it circa 1915. Dubbed the Foolkiller, it was put on public display. Does it still exist? Is there more information on it? The second was/is a 31-foot-long, hotdog-shaped wooden item, banded with iron straps, with a pipe running end to end. It was found in the Chicago River, and its status as a submarine was unconfirmed, as it had not been salvaged at the time of publication, circa 2000. Was this in fact a submarine? What was it? Has it been salvaged?

— Bosda Di'Chi of Tricor, via the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board

Cecil replies:

We'll get to your questions in a moment, Bosda. But first a metadiscussion, if you will, of the oddball publishing phenomenon. I don't mean Jerome Pohlen's books specifically, although he's been energetic in this regard. I'm speaking of the  small industry that's arisen chronicling the eccentric in American life — eccentricity understood to take in the amusingly offbeat, but edging inevitably into the supernatural, the criminal, and the flat out strange. Pohlen, who has also chronicled the oddities of Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin, takes a buffet-table approach to his subject, as do most (not all) practitioners of the trade. That can be frustrating for those wanting something more substantial. Sure, a paragraph tells you all you really need to know about the souvenir rocks stuck in Col. McCormick's Tribune Tower. Mysterious submarines, on the other hand, deserve a little more. I've done what I can to oblige. Warning: this is mostly about failure. But so what? Losers deserve to have their tales told too. 

Here's what Pohlen has to say about those submarines:

Salvage crews were dredging the river following the Eastland tragedy [in which 812 people were killed when an overloaded cruise boat tipped over near the Clark Street bridge in 1915], and they snagged a small craft on the riverbed. It turned out to be a one-man submarine with two skeletons inside, one human and one dog. Investigators believed it to be the wreck of an experimental vessel made by Lodner Phillips from Indiana. He had sold the imperfect contraption to William Nissen, most likely the victim found inside. The craft was dubbed the Foolkiller and put on display, along with the two skeletons.

[Another] submarine, if it is that, sits just inside the Chicago River locks in the ship-turning basin. The 31-foot-long object is shaped like a hot dog and has a square hatch in its side. It is made of wood, banded with iron straps, and has a pipe running from end to end. Nobody knows what it is or how it got there. The Coast Guard will drag the ... whatever ... out into the middle of the lake in the near future.

Let's take the latter item first. We'll get to the Foolkiller next week.

The wooden hot dog — "oak zeppelin" was Tribune reporter Peter Kendall's more apt term — was discovered by local scuba divers in 1992. Their attempts to raise it the following year failed, as did all efforts to establish what it was. The thing certainly wasn't a submarine. It had no engine, steering mechanism, or other machinery. Its interior, accessible by a single 18-inch hatch, was elaborately framed, but gave no sign the device was intended for human occupancy. Some thought it was an oversize buoy, others a target for World War II naval gunnery practice. The thing was wonderfully crafted, all agreed, but the question remained: a wonderfully crafted what?

No progress in this respect had been made when state officials preparing for a construction project in the turning basin a few years later decided the mysterious object was in the way. They told amateur archeological divers they could have it if they got it out of there. Otherwise it was doomed.

At that point someone called in the media — a smart move. In the ensuing publicity a fellow stepped forward who knew what the object was, and had the documentation to prove it. His name was Michael Tym, the son of the thing's inventor, a Ukrainian immigrant also named Michael Tym. The name of the wooden watermelon? The TymBarge. Its one and only voyage, if that's what you want to call it, had been in 1942.

I"m sure the TymBarge seemed like a good idea at the time. The elder Tym, an imaginative if verbose sort, called it an "amphibious semi-submersible type of seagoing tow barge." Kendall's more concise description: a floating fuel tank. The idea was to fill the thing with gasoline or oil and tow it to an overseas Allied base.

The vessel had two advantages. First, when loaded it was mostly submerged, making it difficult for the enemy to spot. Second, it was made of wood, plentiful at a time when metals were scarce. (Howard Hughes's famous aircraft the Spruce Goose had been constructed of plywood for the same reason.) The 34-foot version in the turning basin, built under a $2,500 deal with a Navy contractor, was merely a prototype. Tym envisioned a fleet of 70-foot barges, each carrying 420 tons of vital fuel.

TymBarge #1 had been secretly built in a shop at 1215 W. Belmont and trucked to the lakefront in November 1942. Having been lowered into the lake and filled with water as a stand-in for fuel, the barge was towed behind a boat while Navy observers watched. Notes and photos preserved by Tym's son suggest the trial went fine — the odd-looking craft rode low in the water as intended, but didn't dive or otherwise misbehave when pulled.

But the Navy never ordered any more. Though no official reason seems to have been given, the easing of wartime shortages no doubt was a factor. One can't help thinking Navy procurement officers also figured: we're going to haul 420-ton dirigibles 3,000 miles through the North Atlantic? Are you nuts?

What happened next isn't precisely known, but we may guess the prototype was simply left tied to the breakwater, where it eventually sank from sight and memory. Having made it their mission to move the TymBarge a half century later, the Underwater Archaeological Society of Chicago marshaled divers and boats to haul the vessel out of the turning basin in May 1999 and tow it to a dive site four miles east of Navy Pier, where it now sits in 42 feet of water next to a sunken tugboat. Sadly, having survived intact for nearly six decades in the turning basin, the vessel has now been broken up by the stresses of open water. But if you're the scuba-diving type, you're welcome to inspect what's left.

Inventor Tym, in case you were wondering, died in 1981 after a couple decades of retirement in a beach house in Mexico. No doubt he was disappointed that his ambitions plans had come to nothing. But perhaps he comforted himself with the thought: me and Howard Hughes.

We'll take up the other mysterious "submarine" next week. Advance notice: if you think the above qualifies as oddball, you ain't heard nothin' yet.

— Cecil Adams
Photo courtesy of Michael Tym

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