Apr 12, 2024 - News

A CIA mission, Howard Hughes: The secret history of the Baltimore bridge's crane

The Chesapeake 1000, a towering yellow crane, sits on a barge.

The Chesapeake 1000, a barge crane owned by New Jersey-based Donjon Marine, is docked as officials hold a news conference at Tradepoint Atlantic on Mar. 29, 2024 in Baltimore, Md.

The enormous crane being used to clear the collapsed Baltimore bridge Baltimore bridge has a backstory that reads like a Spielberg spy movie: Cold War espionage, a covert CIA mission, and … Howard Hughes?

The big picture: A huge crane — one of the East Coast's largest — arrived in Baltimore last month to help remove the precarious jumble of debris from the collapsed Francis Scott Key Bridge.

  • Named Chesapeake 1000, aka "Chessy," the crane can lift 1,000 tons and was used half a century ago to aid a U.S. spy operation.

Flashback: When a Soviet submarine sank off the coast of Hawaii in 1968, the U.S. was eager to recover it and the nuclear weapons and codebooks it likely held.

  • The CIA decided to build a huge ship with long, extendable steel pipes attached to a metal claw that would grab the sub from the ocean floor and pull it into a "moon pool" in the ship's belly — meaning the entire capture effort could be done out of sight.
  • Chessy the crane's first mission was to help build that massive ship.

To keep the six-year plan, dubbed Project AZORIAN, a secret, the ship was disguised as a deep-sea mining vessel called the "Hughes Glomar Explorer" purportedly owned by reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes.

  • There was even a faux champagne christening and press release welcoming the ship.

Context: The mission, which took place in 1974, wasn't easy. The sub sat about 17,000 feet below the Pacific's surface, deeper than the Titanic. It was also mangled and would be difficult to transport amid ocean currents.

  • And, of course, this all had to be done in secret. "They must be smoking something to even believe they can do that," a former CIA official recalled a Naval official saying at the time.
  • (David Sharp, the mission's director of recovery systems, wrote a book about it.)

To top it off, during the mission a Soviet salvage boat just happened to be parked near the ultra-secret site.

Ultimately, the mission wasn't entirely successful — only part of the Soviet sub was recovered — but the daring imagination required prompted the American Society of Mechanical Engineers to dub it "one of the greatest engineering achievements of all time," per Washingtonian.

  • Plus: The nearby Soviet boat appeared unaware of what was going on right next door. When it passed on its departure, the sailors simply dropped their pants and mooned the U.S. ship.

The public got wind of the mission the next year in 1975 when stolen documents linking Hughes to Project AZORIAN leaked to media outlets — blowing the ship's cover and any hope for a second recovery mission to get the rest of the sub.

  • The CIA confirmed the mission in 2010 via a partially redacted report.
  • The ship is now used for deep-sea exploration and drilling, per the CIA.

And Chessy, as we know, is still very much on the job.

What we're watching: Chessy and its fellow cleanup compatriots are on an aggressive schedule to get the Baltimore port cleared and running by May.

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