There’s a WWII-Era Submarine Stuck in the New Jersey Mud

Jay Serafino
Jay Serafino

During the rainy weekend of Saturday, August 11, 2018, as massive flash floods swept through Bergen County, New Jersey, a group of vandals broke into the USS Ling, a World War II-era submarine that sits on the banks of the Hackensack River. According to NorthJersey.com, hatches throughout the sub were forced open, allowing water to rush in and flood the interior. Worse yet, four plaques were stolen from the property, which paid tribute to the 52 subs that were lost during the war.

The Ling becoming the scene of a crime is just the latest act in a series of misfortunes that turned this once-proud piece of naval history into a sad site caked with rust and scarred by corrosion. The vessel was supposed to honor the United States’s proud military tradition, while serving as an educational showpiece for Hackensack area residents. Over the last few years, however, acts of both nature and bureaucracy have left the ship quite literally stuck in the New Jersey mud.

Construction began on the Ling in November 1942 at the Cramp Shipbuilding Company in Philadelphia; the craft was officially commissioned in June 1945 at the Boston Navy Yard. By then, though, the final shots of World War II were being fired, and the Ling made just one patrol in the Atlantic before the conflict was officially over.

The 312-foot-long ship was kept in reserve after the war before being recommissioned in the 1960s, where it was used as a training vessel in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Rather than send the sub to a scrap pile, the Navy donated it to members of the local Submarine Memorial Association in 1972, who placed it in Hackensack, New Jersey, to serve as the main showpiece of the New Jersey Naval Museum—which otherwise consisted only of a trailer containing photos and other Navy memorabilia, as well as a few pieces of artillery displayed on the grass in front of the ship.

A sign for the New Jersey Naval Museum
A sign for the New Jersey Naval Museum off River Street in Hackensack, New Jersey.
Jay Serafino

For a $12 entrance fee, you could roam the ship’s cramped hallways to explore the Ling’s engine room, walk through the crew’s sleeping quarters, and come face-to-face with a torpedo launcher. There was even an ice cream maker onboard, a common amenity on WWII submarines. One of the perks of captaining the ship was also apparently being in charge of choosing which flavor to make.

Though the Ling never had the big city money or pristine polish of the USS Intrepid—which is docked just about 15 miles away on Manhattan's West Side—it was a reasonably priced way for locals to explore a piece of naval pride in their own backyard.

Until Hurricane Sandy literally cut the Ling off from land in 2012.

“The storm kind of shifted or broke the connection between the dock and the boat,” Captain Hugh Carola, program director for the Hackensack Riverkeeper—a nonprofit environmental organization aimed at preserving the Hackensack River—tells Mental Floss. “There’s no way to safely and correctly access the boat from the shore anymore.”

The ship briefly reopened for tours following a cleanup effort, but in 2015 it was deemed inaccessible and permanently closed when the already damaged pier finally broke away from the shore. With its centerpiece out of commission, the museum—which still owns the ship itself—closed up shop as well.

Sadly, that was just the beginning of the Ling’s problems. Over the years, the river around the ship has filled with silt, leaving only 3 feet of water in the region at low tide. “The river has silted in so much over there, there hasn’t been any vessel past the Court Street bridge, I believe, since the Ling was put there,” Carola explains.

Complicating matters further, the land the museum occupied is being redeveloped. It was originally the property of the Borg family, owners of The Record newspaper, who leased the space to the museum for $1 a year. But when the family sold the paper and decided to redevelop the 20 acres of land, the museum’s lease was terminated. Demolition on the site will begin in September 2018; the museum packed up its remains and left in mid-August, according to NorthJersey.com. The museum hopes to find a new home, but since the sub is technically still in the river, it’s on public land—and no one is quite sure how to proceed.

“Hackensack has no jurisdiction,” Carola tells Mental Floss. “Private owners have no jurisdiction, because they don’t own where the boat is sitting. That’s a public trust resource. That’s tide land. You and I own that.”

So why can’t the Ling just be moved? Well, it’s complicated.

Tug boats and barges likely wouldn’t be able to get to the ship’s location in the shallow river waters. And even if they could, dealing with the nearby Court Street Bridge would be another hurdle. If, by some miracle, all the logistics worked out, Carola questions whether the Ling itself could even float at this point due to its deteriorated condition. It seems like every possible solution runs into a problem that puts it just out of reach.

“If you want to take it out in pieces, hopefully to reassemble it someplace else, that could be done,” Carola says. “But, then again, you have to—what?—create a temporary shipyard to prevent oil and whatever fluid might still be in the boat from getting into the Earth. And who’s going to pay for all that?”

The USS Ling submarine in Hackensack, New Jersey
Jay Serafino

Even officials for the city of Hackensack, home to the Ling since the early 1970s, question whether or not this piece of history will be able to find a happy ending.

“We appreciated the significance of the site, but it’s become a liability at this point, and that’s a shame," Albert Dib, city historian and director of redevelopment for the City of Hackensack, told The New York Times.

Malcolm A. Borg, whose father leased the land to the museum in the 1970s, echoed Dib’s grim assessment while pointing out the complex bureaucracy of the situation, telling The New York Times: “It's tragic—it’s rusting through in a number of places. It would take a lot of permits to get that boat out of there.”

In addition to local government and private business, the community itself has been involved in the fight for the Ling with a GoFundMe campaign that launched in June 2017. It was started by the folks behind the New Jersey Naval Museum to help raise money for the restoration and the preservation of the discarded sub, but after more than a year online, the campaign has raised just over $20,000 of its $100,000 goal.

“Nobody cares about it,” Les Altschuler, vice president of the Submarine Memorial Association, told The New York Times.

While Altschuler may believe that no one cares about the ship, it doesn't seem as if anyone is looking to make an aggressive move to get rid of it, either. "We know it's important,” Bob Sommer, a spokesman for Macromedia, which owns the Record property, told NorthJersey.com. “Of course, it's under consideration as possibly part of the landscape."

As if there wasn’t enough stress surrounding the Ling, now locals have to wait for authorities to make progress finding the people who vandalized the ship. “It adds an additional burden of time and resources that this group so desperately needs,” Gilbert De Laat, the New Jersey Naval Museum president, said. “It’s unfortunate that someone took this fragile situation and made it worse.”

Despite hurricanes, vandals, and a multi-million-dollar land deal threatening its very existence, the ship seems to be staying put for now. Whether you want to call it resilient or stubborn, the USS Ling continues to be a staple of Hackensack—though probably not in the way anyone intended.

7 Ways Victorian Fashion Could Kill You

An 1862 engraving showing a skeleton gentleman at a ball asking a skeleton lady to dance, meant to represent the effect of arsenic dyes and pigments in clothing and accessories.
An 1862 engraving showing a skeleton gentleman at a ball asking a skeleton lady to dance, meant to represent the effect of arsenic dyes and pigments in clothing and accessories.

While getting dressed in the morning can seem like a hassle (pajamas are so much more comfortable), few of us worry about our clothes leading to our death. That wasn’t the case during the Victorian era, when fashionable fabrics and accessories sometimes came at great price for both makers and wearers. In Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present, Alison Matthews David, a professor in the School of Fashion at Ryerson University in Toronto, outlines the many toxic, flammable, and otherwise highly hazardous components of high style during the 19th century. Here are a few of the worst offenders.

1. Poisonous Dyes

A drawing of Victorian fashions likely made with arsenic dyes
A drawing of Victorian fashions likely made with arsenic dyes
Bloomsbury Visual Arts

Before the 1780s, green was a tricky color to create on clothes, and dressmakers depended on a combination of yellow and blue dyes to produce the hue. But in the late 1770s a Swedish/German chemist named Carl Wilhelm Scheele invented a new green pigment by mixing potassium and white arsenic on a solution of copper vitriol. The pigment was dubbed Scheele’s Green, and later Paris Green, among other names, and it became a huge sensation, used to color walls, paintings, and fabrics as well as candles, candies, food wrappers, and even children’s toys. Not surprisingly, it also caused sores, scabs, and damaged tissue, as well as nausea, colic, diarrhea, and constant headaches.

Although fashionable women wore arsenic-dyed fabrics—even Queen Victoria was depicted in one—its health effects were worst among the textile and other workers who created the clothes and often labored in warm, arsenic-impregnated rooms day after day. (Some scholars have even theorized that Napoleon might have been poisoned by the arsenic-laced wallpaper hung in his St. Helena home.)

Arsenical dyes were also a popular addition to artificial flowers and leaves, which meant they were frequently pinned to clothes or fastened on heads. In the 1860s, a report commissioned by the Ladies’ Sanitary Association found that the average headdress contained enough arsenic to poison 20 people. The British Medical Journal wrote of the green-clad Victorian woman: “She actually carries in her skirts poison enough to slay the whole of the admirers she may meet with in half a dozen ball-rooms.” Despite repeated warnings in the press, and from doctors and scientists, the Victorians seemed in love with emerald green arsenic dyes; ironically, they acted like a reminder of the nature then swiftly being lost to industrialization, David says.

2. Pestilential Fabrics

Soldiers of the Victorian era (and earlier) were plagued by lice and other body parasites that carried deadly diseases such as typhus and trench fever. But soldiers weren’t the only victims of disease carried via fabric—even the wealthy sometimes wore clothing that was made or cleaned by the sick in sweatshops or tenements, and which spread disease as a result. According to David, the daughter of Victorian Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel died after her riding habit, given to her by her father as a gift, was finished in the house of a poor seamstress who had used it to cover her sick husband as he lay shivering with typhus-induced chills. Peel’s daughter contracted typhus after wearing the garment, and died on the eve of her wedding.

Women also worried about their skirts sweeping through the muck and excrement of city streets, where bacteria was rife, and some wore special skirt-fasteners to keep them up from the gunk. The poor, who often wore secondhand clothes, suffered from smallpox and other diseases spread by fabric that was recycled without being properly washed.

3. Flowing Skirts

Giant, ruffled, crinoline-supported skirts may have been fine for ladies of leisure, but they weren’t a great combination with industrial machinery. According to David, one mill in Lancashire posted a sign in 1860 forbidding the “present ugly fashion of HOOPS, or CRINOLINE, as it is called” as being “quite unfitted for the work of our Factories.” The warning was a wise one: In at least one printing office, a girl was caught by her crinoline and dragged under the mechanical printing press. The girl was reportedly “very slim” and escaped unharmed, but the foreman banned the skirts anyway. Long, large, or draped skirts were also an unfortunate combination with carriages and animals.

4. Flammable Fabrics

A woman with her crinoline on fire
Bloomsbury Visual Arts

The flowing white cotton so popular in the late 18th and 19th centuries had dangers to both maker and wearer: It was produced with often-brutal slave labor on plantations, and it was also more flammable than the heavy silks and wool favored by the wealthy in the previous centuries. One type of cotton lace was particularly problematic: In 1809 John Heathcoat patented a machine that made the first machine-woven silk and cotton pillow “lace” or bobbinet, now better known as tulle, which could catch fire in an instant. The tulle was frequently layered, to add volume and compensate for its sheerness, and stiffened with highly combustible starch. Ballerinas were particularly at risk: British ballerina Clara Webster died in 1844 when her dress caught fire at London’s Drury Lane theatre after her skirt came too close to sunken lights onstage.

But performers weren’t the only ones in peril: Even the average woman wearing the then-popular voluminous crinolines was at risk of setting herself ablaze. And the “flannelette” (plain cotton brushed to create a nap and resemble wool flannel) so popular for nightshirts and undergarments was particularly combustible if hit with a stray spark or the flame of a household candle. So many children burned in household accidents that one company came out with a specially treated flannelette called Non-Flam, advertised as being “strong’y recommended by Coroners.”

5. Arsenic-Ridden Taxidermy

Dead birds were a popular addition to ladies’ hats in the 19th century. According to David, “fashions in millinery killed millions of small songbirds and introduced dangers that may still make some historic women’s hats harmful to humans today.”

But it wasn’t the birds that were the problem—it was the arsenic used on them. Taxidermists of the day used arsenic-laced soaps and other products to preserve birds and other creatures. In some cases, entire birds—one or several—were mounted on hats. Some Victorian fashion commentators decried the practice, though not because of the arsenic involved. One Mrs. Haweis, a writer on dress and beauty, began an 1887 diatribe against “smashed birds” with the sentence: “A corpse is never a really pleasant ornament.”

6. Mercury

No upper-class man of the Victorian era was complete without his hat, but many of those hats were made with mercury. As David explains, “Although its noxious effects were known, it was the cheapest and most efficient way to turn stiff, low-grade fur from rabbits and hares into malleable felt.” Mercury gave animal fur its smooth, glossy, matted texture, but that velvety look came at a high cost—mercury is an extremely dangerous substance.

Mercury can rapidly enter the body through the skin or the air, and causes a range of horrible health effects. Hatters were known to suffer from convulsions, abdominal cramps, trembling, paralysis, reproductive problems, and more. (A chemistry professor studying toxic exposure at Dartmouth College, Karen Wetterhahn, died in 1996 after spilling just a few drops of a supertoxic type of mercury on her glove.) To make matters worse, hatters who drank while they worked (not an uncommon practice) only hastened mercury’s effects by hampering the liver’s ability to eliminate it. While scholars still debate whether Lewis Carroll’s “mad hatter” was meant to show the effects of mercury poisoning, his trembling limbs and wacky speech seem to fit the bill.

7. Lead

A Victorian facial cream containing lead
A Victorian facial cream containing lead
Bloomsbury Visual Arts

Pallor was definitely in during the Victorian era, and a face spackled with lead white paint was long favored by fashionable women. Lead had been a popular ingredient in cosmetics for centuries, David writes, because it “made colors even and opaque and created a desirable ‘whiteness’ that bespoke both freedom from hard outdoor labor and racial purity.” One of the most popular lead-laced cosmetic products was called Laird’s Bloom of Youth; in 1869, one of the founders of the American Medical Association treated three young women who had been using the product and temporarily lost full use of their hands and wrists as a result. (The doctor described the condition as “lead palsy,” although today we call it wrist drop or radial nerve palsy, which can be caused by lead poisoning.) One of the women’s hands was said to be “wasted to a skeleton.”

This article was republished in 2019.

Neil Armstrong’s Spacesuit Will Go Back on Display for Apollo 11's 50th Anniversary

Phil Plait, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0
Phil Plait, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Neil Armstrong made history when he became the first person to walk on the Moon 50 years ago. Space exploration has changed since then, but the white space suit with the American flag patch that Armstrong wore on that first walk is still what many people think of when they picture an astronaut. Now, after sitting in storage for a decade, that iconic suit is ready to go on display, according to Smithsonian.

NASA donated Neil Armstrong's suit to the Smithsonian shortly after the Apollo 11 mission. For about 30 years, it was displayed at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Then, in 2006, the museum moved the artifact to storage to minimize damage.

Even away from the exhibit halls, the suit was deteriorating, and the Smithsonian knew it would need to be better preserved if it was to be shown to the public again. In 2015, the institution launched its first-ever Kickstarter campaign and raised more than $700,000 for conservation efforts.

After a multi-year preservation project, the suit will finally return to the museum floor on July 16, 2019—the date that marks 50 years since Apollo 11 launched. This time around, the suit will be displayed on a structure that was custom built to support its interior, protecting it from the weight of gravity. Climate-controlled air will flow through the gear to recreate the stable environment of a storage unit.

Even if you can't make it to the National Air and Space Museum to see Armstrong's space suit in person, soon you'll be able to appreciate it from home in a whole new way. The museum used various scanning techniques to create an intricate 3D model of the artifact. Once the scans are reconfigured for home computers, the Smithsonian's digitization team plans to make an interactive version of the digital model freely available on its website.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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