CENTRAL CITY, Colorado — It may sound a bit off-the-wall — and the reaction of a typical museum visitor might be to say "What the heck?"
"This is the last thing they expect to find in the mountains a thousand miles from the nearest ocean," said David Forsyth, curator of the Gilpin County Historical Society Museum.
Known as "the Mountain Submarine," much of its history remains a mystery. But it is known that it took a single, disastrous voyage way back in 1898.
The setting of the historical yarn is Missouri Lake, a frigid body of water 9,000 feet high in the mountains near Central City, Colorado. It's the kind of place where snow is possible most months of the year.
"Water up here never gets too warm," said Forsyth who agrees it's definitely not the kind of place you'd imagine taking a dive below the surface. "It's not a place you'd want to get trapped in a sub."
And yet it was in Missouri Lake in 1944 that a man who knew where to look found the submarine and brought it to the surface. That followed nearly a half century of rumors, myths and legends that had been swirling around the old mining town.
The story of the Mountain Submarine is still shrouded in unanswered questions, although it is known that it was the brain-child of one Rufus T. Owen. "There are no records of him building it," Forsyth said. "We know who built it. We know where it was built. We don't know what they actually did to it."
No photo of Owen has ever been discovered, but he was a well-known character around the mining district in the late 1800s. Reportedly, he was a skilled engineer who knew his way around a set of plans.
"The 1890's," Forsyth said. "It was kind of the height of the submarine craze. The U.S. Navy had been running a contest trying to come up with a good workable sub design."
Owen never revealed if that was his motive for building the sub and he kept the project top secret. The lack of information in such a small town tended to feed the rumor mill. There were stories of a secret propulsion system, mysterious chemicals, and later rumors that he sold his submarine designs to Germany. All those stories were probably false, according to Forsyth.
The recovered sub is made mostly of wood surrounded by a theoretically watertight metal skin that's believed to be sheets of zinc that Owen soldered or welded together.
In the museum exhibit, hundreds of rocks are piled around the submarine. They were found inside the sunken submarine when it was raised from the lake bed in 1944. Owen and his friends reportedly packed them on board the sub for ballast on his top-secret maiden voyage.
The rocks led to disaster. When the sub was launched in 1898, its hatch was open and Owen was about to climb in.
"Yeah, they were getting ready," Forsyth said. "And they kind of screwed up."
The sub definitely went under water. But things didn't exactly go according to plan. The rocks were out of balance. The Mountain Submarine tipped and evidently took a big gulp of lake water through the open hatch.
"It went straight down," Forsyth said. "And that was where it stayed."
With the technology of the day, there was no way to recover it so Owen abandoned his sunken submarine. "I'm sure it killed Owen to do it," Forsyth said, "but they had no choice."
In 1944, Fred DeMandel — a local man who had talked about seeing the sub as a child — was tired of being disbelieved by local residents. Some were skeptical that the sub had ever existed; others had heard all the rumors and had varying theories about the sub's design. So DeMandel, hoping to lay the rumors to rest, found the sub and brought it back up to the surface after 46 years underwater.
"Which led to the joke that it was the longest crash dive in history," Forsyth said.
So now anyone can see it, but they'll never really know why Rufus T. Owen thought a Mountain Submarine was a good idea.