If you want to know how Dan Nied of York City became a go-to-guy when the U.S. Navy tried to unlock one of the Civil War's biggest mysteries, just ask him how he got his start in watchmaking.

That's when his story falls into place like clockwork.

"Well what happened was, I really was a poor boy from Harlem," Nied said, leaning back against his wood chair and barreling out his chest. "The only valuable thing that we owned was my great-grandfather's watch.

"One day having nothing else to do, and no supervision, I took it all apart on the kitchen table down to the last screw. And my father came home, he's a very easy going, good-natured man, ... and he said you've got two hours to put that together, and it better run or I'll kill you.

York City watch and clock maker Daniel Nied helped preserve a piece of Civil War history when he worked with a team of scientists in the recovery of the
York City watch and clock maker Daniel Nied helped preserve a piece of Civil War history when he worked with a team of scientists in the recovery of the Hunley, a Confederate submarine that sank near Charleston, S.C. (John Pavoncello Photo)

"And my father didn't talk like that. ... I knew I was in trouble. And in a half an hour, I'd put it together and it was running. ... I just had a knack, it just came very easily."

An expert now: Fifty-one years after his kitchen table
exploits, Nied, now 61, has become an expert at working on old watches as a horologist -- one who studies the art of measuring time.

He is a former instructor for the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors in Columbia, Lancaster County, and has amassed years of experience in restoring old watches and clocks, many for museums and private collectors, whose names he said he is not at liberty to reveal.

His expertise is precisely what the U.S.


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Navy needed to help preserve a precious watch found in a shipwrecked submarine from the Civil War.

It wasn't just any submarine; it was the Confederate H. L. Hunley -- the first military submarine to successfully sink a ship. But after the Hunley rammed and sank the Union's USS Housatonic warship off of the coast of Charleston, S.C., on Feb. 17, 1864, the submarine also disappeared.

Where the submarine sank remained a mystery for more than a hundred years until it was finally located in 1995 not far from the Charleston coast.

The Hunley is immersed in a storage tank at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in Charleston. (John Pavoncello Photo)
The Hunley is immersed in a storage tank at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in Charleston. (John Pavoncello Photo)
The bodies of the crew were still trapped inside, and the sub was pulled from the ocean in 2000 and taken to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in Charleston.

The pocket watch: In 2003, the archaeologist studying the sub decided they needed Nied's expertise because inside the wreckage they found the pocket watch belonging to the Hunley's commander, Lt. George Dixon.

Corroded by more than 100 years of exposure to salty seawater, the commander's watch was something the Navy hoped could tell a little about the mystery of the Hunley.

More specifically, by prying open the gold-cased watch, the Navy hoped to learn what time the watch had stopped--and possibly how and when the Hunley met its fate.

"This is a piece of history," Nied said.

Nied said researchers wanted to know if water had stopped the clock -- indicating the boat was taking on water when it sank, or whether the clock had continued to run after the boat went down -- which would indicate it sank because the men ran out of oxygen and suffocated inside the primitive sub.

But the watch had been severely damaged by more than 100 years in the ocean, making it nearly impossible to open without destroying. Salt water had turned steel parts of the watch into iron oxide, which was too sensitive to touch, Nied said.

"If you touch it, it disintegrates," Nied said.

That was a problem because on of the Navy's top priorities was to preserve the watch in as pristine condition as possible, Nied said.

"This had never been done before, to conserve a piece once it's that far gone," Nied said.

Mission accomplished: Through hours of painstaking work to stop the corrosion and open the watch, Nied, who wears special eye loupe lenses attached to his glasses so he can magnify small details, said he was able to learn about the origins of the watch and to completely preserve it.

The watch was English, he said, dated back to circa 1830 and was made by S.I. Tobais & Co.

He also determined that the watch stopped at 8:23. But he said the time itself may not mean much, because no one knows what standard of time the commander used to set his watch, or how accurately he had set it.

Studying the watch also led to inconclusive evidence about what had caused it to stop, and what caused the sub and its crew to sink.

"We still don't really know how they died, and, of course, they are not talking," Nied said.

Today, Nied continues to work with the Navy on the Hunley preservation project, and no matter what else he's done in his long career, he said everyone always wants to know about the Hunley.

"It's a phenomenal privilege," Nied said. "I got to work with some of the best people in the conservation business."

-- Reach Brock Parker at 505-5434 or bparker@yorkdispatch.com.