As we are all now are living through the historic COVID19 pandemic, it is prudent to remember that our ancestors similarly experienced history as it happened. And some of them took and saved pictures of those moments. While the number of photos taken annually worldwide has gone from less than a billion to more than a trillion in the last 100 years, that still leaves a lot of photos that can be unearthed, and which have the potential to tell an important story. Perhaps you might be holding one of the few limited photos of a person, place or event and that could be a key part of someone’s family or topical research down the road. If you find yourself digging through old family photos to help pass the time these long weeks of quarantine, take a close look at some of those photos normally easily dismissed because they don’t have recognizable people or places. Old photos are great vehicles to teach or learn about events of the past. And of you come across something interesting, please consider sharing and preserving those photos with the world in some way.

View of the damaged S-51 sail. S-51 is visible = photo courtesy of author

In the collection of photos from my New York ancestors, I recently came across several images of what appeared to be a damaged submarine or ship of some type. As these were not labeled or dated in any way, a little bit of detective work had to be undertaken. Once scanned and enlarged, one of the photos revealed a faint S-51 on the ship’s sail. From that point, a quick Internet search soon revealed the story and tragic fate of the crew of the USS S-51.

close up of the S-51 marking on sail – photo courtesy of author

While out on peacetime training exercises off the coast of Block Island (RI) on the evening of September 25, 1925, the USS S-51, a S-Class submarine, was struck mid hull by a merchant vessel, the City of Rome. Water poured through the 7’x5’ gash and the sub went to the bottom less than a minute after the collision. Of the 36 brave sailors aboard, only 3 managed to escape the ship prior to sinking and were able to make their way to a lifeboat lowered by the City of Rome crew. Navy rescue pilots and divers were able to find and reach the vessel about 15 hours after sinking but their tapping in hopes of finding survivors proved fruitless.

Rear view of damaged USS S-51 in the Brookyln dry dock – photo courtesy of author

An effort to raise the USS S-51 from the ocean depths was launched in the months after the accident. This was no small feat as the ship rested 132 below the surface and would wind up taking months of diving to complete. Diving equipment of the era was serviceable, but this was most definitely dangerous work. If it wasn’t dangerous enough to simply dive to those depths, the water filled vessel required that divers dig tunnels under the vessel in order to loop multiple chains around it. These chains could be then affixed and raised by the 10 pontoons and support ships waiting on the surface.   Divers overcame cave ins and detached lifelines to ultimately rig and raise the sub on June 5th, 1926. It was floated into New York Harbor and into the dry dock of the Brooklyn Navy Yard where the bodies of the entombed sailors were carefully removed. This submarine was left on display for a period of time in that dry dock when my great grandfather (most likely) or other relative took the photos I would ponder over nearly 100 years later.

View of damaged USS S-51 in Brooklyn dry dock with onlookers and several pontoons that helped raise the sunken vessel visible to left and right of sub – photo courtesy of author

View of ramps that dock workers used to access the damaged sub – photo courtesy of author

Photos such as these are easily dismissed. There was no family story passed down and while this most definitely made major news at the time, the brave sailors were eventually lost to history. Surviving family members carried on their legacy and told their tale and it is my hope that sharing this story today is some way continues to honor their sacrifice and keep the story alive.

If you have mysterious photos in your collection, please bring them to a staff member in our Local History and Genealogy Department. We’d love to help try and see what can be revealed. For help identifying dates of images and other tips on analyzing photos, we suggest books like The Family Photo Detective by Maureen A. Taylor.

And, if you hold photos of local interest or significance, please consider submitting photos to the library and allowing us to digitize them. Details for submission can be found on the library’s website.

Paul Duryea is the Branch Manager at the Covington Library and as well as an amateur genealogist and historian.

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