State Highway Marker

State Highway Marker

Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Proto-Aircraft Carrier of the Pamunkey Part Two

 . . . continued from the posting of February 26 . . .

Model of the USS G.W. Parke Custis at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum

". . .the balloon-boat USS G.W. Parke Custis* was added to the equipment of the balloon service in November, 1861. This vessel had originally been purchased by the Navy Department in August of the same year for service as a coal barge in the Washington Navy Yard. She had been assigned to Lowe for the aeronautic service by personal instructions of Secretary Gideon Welles, to whom Lowe's application for a vessel had been referred. This balloon-boat, which may properly be called the first aircraft carrier in history, was approximately 8 years old at the time of her conversion to the aeronautic service. Her initial coast to the Navy had been $150. She had an overall length of 122 feet, a 141/2 foot beam and was 51/2 feet in depth of hold. Of very shallow draft, she had a carrying capacity of 75 tons in 21/2 feet of water, which was increased in deep water to 120 tons. This vessel was not equipped with engines, but was dependent upon an attending tug or small steamer for propulsion. In waters too shallow for towing, she could be propelled by large oars or heavy poles.
Under the direction of Lowe, the superstructure of the vessel was remodeled by naval carpenters to suit the requirements of her new service. The entire hull was covered over with a  single flat deck, which provided a large level area for the inflation and ascension of the balloons. A small deckhouse on the stern was also added for the headquarters of the aeronaut in charge of the boat. The shallow draft and roomy hold made the vessel admirably suited to balloon operations. She could be towed into any position navigable by her attending tug, and by means of her poles and oars could be maneuvered through more shallow waters into positions of advantage for observation that were otherwise inaccessible. In addition to her usefulness in providing ascension areas on her deck, her hold also furnished ample space for the stowage and transportation of iron turnings, acid, and other materials and equipment."

-Aeronautics in the Union and Confederate armies, with a survey of military aeronautics prior to 1861, vol. 1, by the Johns Hopkins Press, 1941.”

* The USS G.W. Parke Custis was of course named after the grandson of Martha Washington and until 1858 the owner of White House and the largest land owner in New Kent. Custis was also, through his daughter Mary Custis, father-in-law of Robert E. Lee. Ironic both in being the name of the US Navy's first "carrier" and in its eventual return to the Custis estate on the Pamunkey.

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