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The Unknown History of Submarines in New Jersey

By Barbara A. Preston | June 2, 2022


The first successful submarine, invented in New Jersey, navigated the Delaware and Raritan Canal along the eastern border of Montgomery Township and Rocky Hill en route to a US Navy base near Washington, DC.


New Jersey inventor John Philip Holland designed a submersible powered by foot pedals in 1873. The U.S. Navy rejected it. Next, he launched a sub into the Passaic River at Paterson in 1878. The vessel descended to a depth of 12 feet, and lasted a full hour underwater. This was still not useful to the Navy, according to drumthwacket.org. It took 26 years, but Holland kept at it.


Finally in November 1899, his “Holland VI” submarine performed flawlessly before the Naval Board of Inspection and was purchased by the U.S. Navy for $165,000. It cruised to Washington, DC via the Delaware and Raritan Canal, passing by the eastern border of Montgomery and Rocky Hill.

A postcard of the US Submarine Boat "Holland."

The Holland VI begins its journey from the Port of Elizabeth to Washington, DC, which took a short cut through the Delaware and Raritan Canal.


Canal historian Linda J. Barth on lindajbarth.com writes about how tugboats, mule-drawn canal boats, steam freighters, luxury yachts, and “even a submarine,” have used the Delaware and Raritan Canal over the years. “Professor Holland used the canal to safely transport Holland VI, the first successful submarine, to Washington, DC for its trials before the U.S. Navy.”

The first successful submarine was built in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Credit: Naval History and Heritage Command.

No One Is Laughing Now

A writer named Farnham Bishop published a book in 1916 titled The Story of the Submarine, illustrated with photographs and drawings. Bishop pronounced John P. Holland as the one man who “the world owes the modern submarine to."


Holland was "a man that some called eccentric but driven," according to a blog post on The Lean Submariner. Holland, an Irish immigrant, "came to America and obtained a job as school-teacher in Paterson, New Jersey. There he built and launched his first submarine in 1875. It was a sharp-pointed, little, cigar-shaped affair, only 16 feet long and two feet in diameter amidships. This craft was designed to carry a torpedo and fix it to the bottom of a ship, on the general principle of Bushnell’s Turtle. It was divided into four compartments, with air-chambers fore and aft. Air-pipes led to where Holland sat in the middle, with his head in a respirator shaped like a diver’s helmet, and his feet working pedals that turned the propeller."


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The First Submarine Named for New Jersey

Given that New Jersey is the birthplace of the modern submarine, it is fitting that one be named for the state. The USS New Jersey, under construction in Norfolk, Virginia, will be delivered to the Navy later this year, to be commissioned in 2023.

The USS New Jersey submarine testing the water. Courtesy of the NJ Submarine Commissioning Committee

This nuclear-powered submarine has come a long way from the foot-pedal powered model in 1873. It will have the capability to attack targets ashore with highly accurate Tomahawk cruise missiles and to conduct covert, long-term surveillance of land areas, coastal regions, and other sea-based forces, according to NavalToday.com. Other missions could include anti-submarine and anti-ship warfare; mine delivery; minefield mapping; and for delivery and support of special forces.


Montgomery resident Paul Blodgett, a US Navy veteran, is the fund-raising chairperson for the USS New Jersey. Blodgett is looking to raise $700,000 for the ceremonial celebrations when the ship is commissioned, and to seed a scholarship fund for the families of crew members.


The Montgomery News is hosting SubFest on June 18 to help Blodgett to meet these goals.


Tickets for SubFest are on sale now and can be purchased online. Standard tickets are $30, youth tickets (under 12 ) are $10, and children under five are free.


Pictorial History of the Submarine

Learn more at subfestnj.com.


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