Warship Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019: The ‘$2 million Fighting Monster’

Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.- Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019: The ‘$2 million Fighting Monster’

NH 108456 (2000×1043)

Here we see the S-class submarine USS S-49 (SS-160), one of the last class of “pig boats” commissioned with letters rather than names, in heavy seas during her brief time in the Navy. Somehow, after a short and unlucky naval career, S-49 was sold to a huckster who turned her into a (sometimes) floating tourist trap that wound up taking his case to the Supreme Court.

True story.

The S-class, or “Sugar” boats, were actually three different variants designed by Simon Lake Co, Electric Boat, and the Bureau of Construction and Repair (BuC&R) in the last days of the Great War in which U.S.-made submarines had a poor record. Looking for a better showing in these new boats, of which 65 were planned, and 51 completed in several subgroups. These small 1,000~ ton diesel-electrics took to the sea in the 1920s and they made up the backbone of the U.S. submarine fleet before the larger “fleet” type boats of the 1930s came online.

The hero of our tale, USS S-49, was 231-feet oal, could dive to 200 feet and travel at a blistering 14.5-knots on the surface on her two 900hp diesel engines and two Westinghouse electric motors for 11-knots submerged. Armament was a quartet of 21-inch bow tubes with a dozen fish and a 4″/50 cal popgun on deck for those special moments. Crew? Just 42 officers and men.

Laid down on 22 October 1920 by the Lake Torpedo Boat Co., Bridgeport, Conn., she commissioned on 5 June 1922 and soon joined New London’s experimental unit, Submarine Division Zero, operating in that role in a series of tests and evaluations into 1926.

U.S. Submarine S-49, during launching NH 108460

This made her one of the most well-photographed of these early submarines.

USS S-49 (SS-160), 1922-1931. NH 108464

USS S-49 (SS-160) NH 108465, on the surface, note her 4″ gun

NH 108462 USS S-49 (SS-160), at periscope depth

NH 108463 USS S-49 (SS-160), with decks awash

NH 108455 USS S-49 (SS-160), looking like she could beat her 14.5-kn max speed

NH 1374 USS S-49 (SS-160). What is the bluejacket on her bow doing?

Then, in early 1926, all hell broke loose.


At about 0750 on Tuesday, 20 April, S-49’s engines were started. Seven minutes later, just as a pilot cell cover was removed to test the specific gravity of the electrolyte, the forward battery exploded. The hydrogen gas explosion destroyed the cells in the forward half of the battery and forced up the battery deck. Ten men were injured. Two others were gassed during rescue operations. Four of the twelve died of their injuries.

The battery compartment was sealed and kept shut until mid-afternoon when the outboard battery vent was opened. During the night, the submarine took on a slight list to port and air pressure was used to keep ballast. At about 0515 on the 21st, a second explosion occurred in the battery room when wash from vessels departing for torpedo practice rocked S-49. The compartment was resealed for another few hours, after which the work of clearing the wreckage was begun.

Repaired and operational again by early 1927, S-49 made a cruise to the Florida Keys that Spring for exercises and then, on return to New London, was sent with her twin sister S-50 to red lead row in Philly in March to be placed in mothballs. Decommissioned 2 August 1927, she was stricken in 1931 to help bring down the Navy’s tonnage after the London Naval Conference.

S-49 was subsequently sold to the Boston Iron and Metal Co., Baltimore, Md., on 25 May 1931– but she was not to be scrapped.

You see, a Florida man by the name of “Capt. F.J. Christensen” purchased the gently-used boat as a hulk for a cost of $25,000 (about $400K in today’s dollars) in 1936 and soon put her to work as a privately-owned tourist attraction in the Great Lakes and East Coast, shuffling her between Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newark, Chicago, Cleveland, Buffalo, Boston, and New York, among others.

For this purpose, she was disarmed, her engines disabled, most of her bunks pulled out (the class was notoriously cramped), registered as a “yacht” to comply with Canadian regulations on warships on the Lakes, and billed as “The $2,000,000 Fighting Monster.”

(Archives of the Supreme Court)

Admission to, “See how men live in a Hell Diver!” was 25-cents for adults, 15 for kiddies, with a souvenir book and other trinkets for sale on board for an added fee.

Privately owned sub S-49, open to the public at Point-o-Pines in Revere, near Boston, Aug 1931. Via Leslie Jones: The Cameraman

Ashore at Revere by Leslie Jones. Note that her torpedo door is open

U.S. Submarine S-49, at Great Lakes Exposition- Cleveland. NH 108461

From her souvenir keepsake book:

USS S-49 was only the second U.S. Navy submarine to be privately owned after naval service– with the first being former Warship Wednesday alum, the O-class diesel-electric submarine USS O-12 (SS-73), which was stricken on 29 July 1930 and leased for $1 per year (with a maximum of five years in options) to Simon Lake’s company for use as a private research submarine. Dubbed the Nautilus, O-12 was to explore the Arctic but instead only made it as far as Norway before the venture tanked and she was sunk in deep water on the Navy’s insistence.

As for Christensen, he flew under the radar and continued in his operation for almost four years until he crossed paths with NYPD Police Commissioner Lewis “Nightstick” Valentine who, appointed in 1934 by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, ran the agency for over a decade before heading to Post-War Tokyo to take over the Metropolitan Police Department there with MacArthur’s blessing. The fuzz brought the submarine owner’s “sandwich men” on charges in 1940 of distributing illegal handbills (the above advert) in a case that went all the way to the nation’s high court in 1942– with the Supremes backing Valentine.

With a war on and Christensen facing mounting legal bills, after all, you can’t fight city hall, he sold the immobile submarine back to the Navy who dubbed it floating equipment and intended to use it for experimental work at the Naval Mine Warfare Proving Ground, Solomons, Md.

However, she sank on the way in 132-feet of water while under tow off Port Patience in the Patuxent River.

She is an active, though advanced, dive site today.

As for her sisters, though obsolete, several S-boats remained on the Navy List and served the Navy well in both the Atlantic and Pacific (including several lost to accidents) during WWII. A half-dozen were even transferred to the Royal Navy as Lend-Lease including class leader and the former submersible aircraft carrier, USS S-1.

None of these hardy, if somewhat unlucky, craft endure though Pigboats.com keeps their memory alive.


Displacement: 876 tons surfaced; 1,092 tons submerged
Length: 231 feet
Beam: 21 feet 9 inches
Draft: 13 feet 4 inches
Propulsion: 2 × MAN diesels, 900 hp each; 2 × Westinghouse electric motors, 447 kW each; 120-cell Exide battery; two shafts.
Speed: 14.5 knots surfaced; 11 knots submerged
Bunkerage: 148 tons oil fuel
Range: 5,000 nautical miles at 10 knots surfaced
Test depth: 200 ft. (61 m)
Armament (as built): 4 × 21 in (533 mm) torpedo tubes (bow, 12 torpedoes)
1 × 4 inch (102 mm)/50 caliber Mark 9 “wet mount” deck gun
Crew: 42 officers and men

If you liked this column, please consider joining the International Naval Research Organization (INRO), Publishers of Warship International

They are possibly one of the best sources of naval study, images, and fellowship you can find. http://www.warship.org/membership.htm

The International Naval Research Organization is a non-profit corporation dedicated to the encouragement of the study of naval vessels and their histories, principally in the era of iron and steel warships (about 1860 to date). Its purpose is to provide information and a means of contact for those interested in warships.

With more than 50 years of scholarship, Warship International, the written tome of the INRO has published hundreds of articles, most of which are unique in their sweep and subject.

PRINT still has its place. If you LOVE warships you should belong.

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  • The story states there were only two privately owned US Navy Submarines. In Newburyport Ma. There was a metal scrapper who owned the former Newburyport Customs House for maybe 3 or 4 decades. (Currently owned by the City of Newburyport as The Customs House Marine Museum). The Family Name was Checkoway.
    The grandson, a lawyer in his Sixties gave a talk of how his grandfather , the scrapper, purchased a WWII Navy Sub from the government which was surplus located at the Portsmouth Shipyard in Portsmouth N.H. After the War for like a dollar. He had it towed to Newburyport and berthed the Sub behind the former Customs House which the property was his salvage yard. He had intended to cut it up for scrap, but there were so many people curious to see and board it, he made other plans.
    What the Sub also had was tanks full of fuel oil/diesel fuel. As an entrepreneur he decided to sell the fuel and started the Checkoway Heating Oil Co. which prospered for years in the Newburyport community.
    The Grandson / Speaker went on to state, his Grandfather had a friend with a waterfront restaurant. He arranged a deal and berthed the Sub behind the restaurant and charged a fee to tour it. I don’t know how long this continued befor the U.S. Navy learned the Sub was not used for scrap and promptly informed the elder Checkoway no more tours and cut it up for scrap which was part of the original sale.
    Checkoway towed the Sub back to his waterfront property and for a year or so he and a worker started cutting the Sub up with acctelyn torch’s for the scrap worth. He also stored much of it inside the Customs House which has marble floors. Needless to say if you visit the Customs House today you walk on the very same cracked marble flooring. The Speaker rembers as a young boy being in the yard, watching his Grandfather and Uncle cutting up the Sub.
    After Checkoway finished his talk, he granted a couple of Brass artifacts from the Sub to the Museum. He also stated two running lights removed from the Sub are at the head of his driveway used at entrance lights.

  • Sorry, SS 231 not 321

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