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Presentation in New Suffolk provides view of local shipwreck dive sites

08/11/2017 6:00 AM |

The garage at Bob Auteri’s Manorville home is filled with artifacts he’s recovered during shipwreck dives in Long Island waters and beyond. Glassware dating back to around 1860, submarine motor parts and battery carbon sticks rest on shelves throughout the space.

“I’m not allowed to bring them into the house,” Mr. Auteri joked, noting that his wife doesn’t share his joy.

Mr. Auteri displayed some of the artifacts he’s recovered during a presentation Saturday at Case’s Place in New Suffolk. Among them was a small bottle bearing an anchor symbol, a sign that it likely came from a U.S. Navy submarine based in New Suffolk.

“A lot of U.S. Navy stuff always had some kind of symbol on it,” he said. “It’s really a cool find.”

Mr. Auteri’s presentation, titled “Local Historic Underwater Dive Sites,” focused on the history of the submarines based in New Suffolk between 1899 and 1905 as well as the Navy ship USS Ohio, which sank off Greenport in 1884 after its decommission nine years earlier. The lecture was part of a summer series hosted by the New Suffolk Waterfront Fund.

A sign at the end of Main Street in New Suffolk marks the hamlet’s history as the ‘first submarine base.’ (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)

Visitors to New Suffolk today will find a sign posted at the end of Main Street, just before the water, that offers one of the few glimpses into a bygone era. “This marks the site of the first submarine base in this country where ‘U.S.S. Holland,’ first submarine commissioned by U.S. Navy, was based for trials,” the sign reads. The area is aptly named Submarine Beach.

The submarines were designed by Irish engineer John Philip Holland, and were built at Crescent Shipyard in Elizabeth, N.J. The Holland VI and six other Holland-type submarines were based in New Suffolk and shared many features with those from the early 20th century that would later be exhibited in more advanced forms, Mr. Auteri said.

A view of the Holland Torpedo Boat Company facility in New Suffolk, circa 1903. (Credit: Naval Historical Center)

One presentation slide showed before-and-after photos of the same view of Nassau Point. The first shot, from 1903, shows a submarine in the foreground and a long dock in the background. The photo at its side, from 2004, shows an empty beach with a small rock jetty where the dock once stood.

Another image showed track “ways” under the water during low tide on the beach that were used to move ships and subs. The tracks are still visible today, Mr. Auteri noted, but are gradually disappearing.

For divers interested in exploring the area for artifacts from the former submarine base, Mr. Auteri said the best area is just off the beach, north of the rock jetty.

The USS Ohio at a dock in Greenport during salvage. (Credit: Courtesy)

The USS Ohio, a 197-foot vessel similar in design to the USS Constitution, was commissioned in October 1838. It supported naval activities during the Mexican-American War and defended Boston Harbor during the Civil War, although the South never advanced that far. The ship was sold for salvage in 1883 and was towed from the Boston Navy Yard to Greenport, where it was stripped of valuables. It was then towed to Conklin’s Point — now called Fanning Point — where it was dynamited and sunk.

That dive site area is currently under the path of the Shelter Island Ferry, Mr. Auteri said. The sound of the propeller can be alarming for the novice diver.

Most of the ship has been buried after so many years.

“You have to dig to get these [artifacts],” Mr. Auteri said. “They kind of bury themselves over the years. The ones that are intact are buried.”

At one point during the presentation, an audience member asked what time of year might offer the best visibility for diving locally. Mr. Auteri said that while he dives year round, the winter can sometimes offer the best visibility.

“Of course, if you go to the Caribbean, it gets a little clearer there,” he joked. “Any time of year.”

Correction: The USS Ohio sank off Greenport in 1884, not 1883. It arrived in Greenport on Nov. 1, 1883 and then sank on July 26, 1884.

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Top photo: A bronze drift pin protruding from a wooden timber from the USS Ohio, which was sunk in the waters off Greenport. (Credit: Courtesy)

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