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Alligator Quick Facts

  • Inventor: Brutus de Villeroi (1794-1874)
  • Shipyard: Neafie & Levy
  • Contractor:  Martin Thomas
  • Supervisor (USN): Commodore Smith, Philadelphia Navy Yard
  • Launch Date:  May 1, 1862
  • Length: 47'
  • Beam (hull): 4' 8"
  • Height (hull): 5' 6"
  • Color: Green
  • Propulsion: Initially oars, then converted to screw propeller
  • Features: Air purifying system; diver lockout chamber
  • Commander: Samuel Eakins
  • Crew Complement: 22 with oars; 8 with screw propeller
  • First Mission: Destroy bridge over Appomattox River; clear obstructions in James River
  • Lost: April 2, 1863

Understanding the technology of the Alligator:
A look inside and out

by Jim Christley

Work on two models of DeVilleroi’s submarine is a driving force for discussions about details of the construction of Alligator including its hull fabrication, hatches and external appearance.  A 1:12 scale model of Alligator's final configuration is being constructed by Mr. Dave Merriman of D&E Miniatures in Virginia Beach, VA.  Work developing ideas on how the Alligator was constructed and how she operated continues on several fronts.  Progress on Dave Merriman's modeling of the Alligator can be found at

This model is to be radio controlled and will be filmed in action at the Navy's David Taylor Naval Ship Research and Development Center model basin. 

Another model is being developed of the prototype DeVilleroi’s  submarine that was confiscated in Philadelphia 1861.  Dubbed by the model builder, Tim Smalley, the Alligator Junior, this 1:7 - (about 5 feet long) model will also figure in the documentary.  You can see progress made in building the model at

These two models incorporate existing design drawings found by Ms. Catherine Marzin of NOAA, most of the existing illustrations found during the historical research of Mr. Christley, Mr. Ragan, Mr. Beard and Mr. Bruns of the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia, Mr. Chuck Viet of the Navy and Marine Living History Association and others.  Mr. Christley forwarded to the group sketches which were the result of converting the design elements of the DeVilleroi drawings into known fabrication techniques and component parts which existed in 1861.  In addition, Mr. Smalley has supplied photos of the interior of the Intelligent Whale and x-ray images of CSS H.L. Hunley's conning tower construction and deadlights.

The two model builders, using their experience and insight are incorporating their own ideas and interpretations of the existing evidence into highly detailed models.  These models and their construction are leading to invaluable discussions as to the boats construction and operation.  Several of the discussions are on the boats employment and operation. 

At least two differing concepts on how the boat might have employed its divers are being formulated at this time.  The major differing points are centered around depth control elements of the design and as a result, how the diver might be deployed.  One hypothesis put forth by Mr. Merriman holds that the boat most probably have employed an anchor weight similar to that shown on the contemporary illustrations of the prototype submarine.  This weight would have been employed to vary the submerged depth of the boat as the diver was deployed. 

The other hypothesis, defended by Mr. Christley holds that the depth control was performed by deploying the buoyancy chambers and using them to control the depth of the boat.  The latter system would have been difficult to employ but the anchor weight proposed in the other hypothesis is not shown on the design drawings.  That the latter system was difficult to employ does not mean it wasn't the means used and that the anchor weight is not shown on the design drawings does not mean it was not actually on board.  There are several elements that were necessary to the operation of the boat and its divers are not incorporated into the design drawings such as the air compression pump for supplying the diver helmet with air.

This type of frank and open discussion is extremely useful in the Alligator Project as it helps ensure all facets of what is known are explored and those elements that are not known are identified.  These unknowns can be further researched and discussed.  No resolution of the differing opinions as to the boats operation is expected soon, if ever, as the actual answer to many of the questions  need the most important element of the project which is the location, recovery and preservation of the actual boat.