The days may be numbered for a World War II-era submarine currently housed at a popular Lowcountry museum. The USS Clamagore has been at the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum in Mount Pleasant for over 30 years. However, it has been closed for repairs the past few months… repairs that museum officials say they cannot afford.
That leaves three likely options, says museum Executive Director Mac Burdette, and none of them bode well for keeping the sub at Patriots Point. He said the vessel is in danger of capsizing at its dock in a few years if no action is taken.
Burdette says the museum’s board will have to decide soon whether it wants to scrap the ship and sell its metal, sell the sub to a willing buyer, or sink it to become an artificial reef. He says the third option is looking increasingly likely.
“She’s getting into some really bad shape,” Burdette said of the Clamagore, “We’re going to do everything we can to be very respectful of her but we have to take a look at the situation with real glasses on and not rose-colored ones.”
Problems include a corroding hull and ballast tanks that could soon begin leaking. The museum needs about $3 million to begin repairs on the Clamagore, Burdette said.
The Patriots Point Development Authority is a state agency, but it does not get any regular funding from the South Carolina government for its budget. It did receive a loan from the state Treasurer’s Office in 2009 that financed emergency repairs for the destroyer USS Laffey. The agency still owes $8.7 million from that loan.
Burdette ruled out seeking repair money from the state legislature, “I don’t believe that the state is going to be particularly keen on floating another loan for the preservation of a ship down here,” he said. Patriots Point does have the power to issue bonds, but it would need permission from the state Budget & Control Board– and Burdette says he does not believe the museum would receive that approval.
Complicating matters is the life cycle of ships moored in salt water. Even if the money comes through, repairs would be needed again in about 15 years. It is likely that the museum would still be repaying the first round of repairs at that point.
Burdette said he believes the museum’s “navy”– consisting of the Clamagore, the Laffey and the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown– is too big for the revenue it takes in. Although the museum is in the middle of an aggressive campaign to increase its visitors (a campaign that appears to be working, according to ticket sales), it is not making nearly enough off gate receipts to finance the repairs of three ships nearing 70 years in age.
The executive director was also reluctant to blame museum officials in the past, but admitted they may have been too ambitious. “Somewhere along the way… they should have said, ‘let’s don’t do this unless we can set aside a fund dedicated to long-term maintenance.”
Burdette has led the museum since October 2010. Prior to that, he was the town administrator of Mount Pleasant.
The Clamagore is the last of its kind– a Balao-class vessel that served in a transitional period between the end of World War II and the dawn of nuclear-powered subs in the 1950s. She was commissioned in 1945 and served until 1975. She was donated to Patriots Point and opened to the public in 1981.
Burdette says he’s still hoping for a miracle donor, “It comes down to a lot of money and, right now, we just don’t have it. Maybe it’ll appear and I wish it would. Everybody here wishes it would, but we have to look at all the options.”