Hunley scientists get pumped

Conservator Philippe de Vivies (left) and Typhanie Brocard help remove the forward ballast pump from the H.L. Hunley on Thursday. The 250-pound pump is the last piece of the sub that has to be removed before conservation of the hull can begin.

Grace Beahm

Now all she needs is a little scraping, a nice chemical washing, and the Hunley will be nearly as good as new.

Just don't try taking her for a spin around the harbor.

On Thursday, scientists took out the Civil War-era submarine's forward ballast pump, the last major piece they needed to remove before they can begin the conservation process. It sounds easier than it was.

Just to detach the pump, they had to drop a keel block that probably weighed 500 pounds. Then, workers had to maneuver the oddly shaped piece past the sub's steering stick, diving plane axle and one of the sub's supporting ribs.

"It is the most complicated piece of machinery in the Hunley, and it was one of the hardest things to take out," said Paul Mardikian, the sub's senior conservator.

With no other major pieces to remove, scientists can face several years of rehabilitation to refurbish and stabilize the iron submarine.

Meanwhile, scientists hope the 250-pound pump will answer a few questions. The settings of the valves inside the pump could reveal whether the men on the Hunley were trying to pump water out of the sub in their final moments. Tests conducted on the piping while the pump still was attached were inconclusive — too much mud inside to see anything.

Maria Jacobsen, the senior Hunley archaeologist, said they also will try to determine whether the pump was originally built for another use and adapted to the sub or built specially for it. That answer has proved elusive, but most people on the project say the odd dimensions of the sub would make it difficult, but not impossible, to make any old thing fit in.

Like everything on the sub, the pump's exterior pipes had many functions. Besides letting the crew expel water and move it from one tank to the other for balance, the outflow pipe also was made to serve as a step for men coming into the sub through the forward hatch.

Lt. George Dixon, the sub's commander, also had a wooden bench built to fit on the pipe, giving him a seat.

For now, the scientists are awaiting an engineering study that will tell them how stable the sub is, in hopes they can sit it upright in the tank. From there, they will begin to scrape off the concretion — a rock-hard mixture of sand and shell — that covers, and for now protects, the sub's hull.

Mardikian says that process could take four people nearly a year to do. When that's finished, and scientists have a chance to finally examine the bare hull for signs of damage or clues to the reason the sub sank, the conservation will begin.

Reach Brian Hicks at 937-5561 or bhicks@postandcourier.com