By Art Cohn, Principal Investigator
The recent never-before-seen images of the universe captured by the James Webb telescope had their parallel in the Finger Lakes this past summer when the multi-beam sonar system mounted aboard the RV David Folger revealed newfound images of the underwater topography of Seneca Lake.
After the Civil War, the deep, dark 38-mile waterway of Seneca Lake teemed with family-operated canal boats. These boats were the tractor trailers of their day, and a squadron of steam-powered towboats provided the power to move them through the lake.
The positive impacts of the Erie Canal’s completion in October 1825 were immediately felt and canal advocates soon began planning for its expansion. A series of “lateral canals” were built. On Seneca Lake, successful lobbying efforts resulted in construction of two canals: Crooked Lake Canal and Chemung Canal.
Art Cohn, principal investigator of the Seneca Lake Archaeological and Bathymetric Survey, became convinced that the large volume of traffic on Seneca Lake and the predictability of storm events could’ve produced a significant collection of 19th century canal shipwrecks.
The Seneca Lake Archaeological and Bathymetric Survey was initiated in 2018 to investigate whether Seneca Lake might contain a collection of 19th century canal boats. In 2018, Cohn signed up to participate in the dynamic five-month outreach program orchestrated by the Corning Museum of Glass. Cohn operated the wooden tugboat C.L. Churchill that moved a 19th century replica canal schooner replica, Lois McClure, over many of the same waterways traveled by canal boats.
In addition to Cohn, expert marine surveyors Tim Caza and Dennis Gerber, along with Dr. Tom Manley, geology professor from Middlebury College, were recruited to evaluate Seneca Lake’s research potential.
“We used side-scanning sonar and remote operated vehicles (ROVs) to test the waters of Seneca Lake for the presence of shipwrecks, and we were not disappointed,” Cohn stated.
In relatively short duration, the survey team located seven intact 19th century era shipwrecks which demonstrated Seneca Lake’s potential to possess an important collection of canal-era watercraft. With the Erie Canal bicentennial helping to fuel public interest, a bold new survey was outlined.
The new survey proposed to utilize state-of-the-art multi-beam sonar as the key tool to map the entire bottom of Seneca Lake. The goals of the survey would be to map and record data for all of the lake and to capture both geophysical information as well as inventorying its collection of shipwrecks.
“It is fair to say that as we began this dynamic new study, none of us could have anticipated just how much information it would yield,” Cohn said.
The survey team was able to return to Seneca Lake in 2019, 2021 and 2022. The true treasure trove yielded by the survey was the number of early canal boats. The lake’s cold, deep water preserved a large collection of intact vessels. Most of these ruffly 80-foot-long wooden ships were characterized as “true shipwrecks,” in that they sank in unplanned circumstances. Therefore, most still contained their cargos and artifacts that defined them as working 19th century watercraft.
Cohn and his team ascertained that most of the boats were steered by a wooden tiller in the stern and have rear cabins where family life took place, including meal preparation, eating and sleeping. Many details of the vessels’ construction include cargo hatch arrangements and draft animal stables at the forward end of the boat.
As a study collection, the shipwrecks will provide significant new information about the maritime heritage of Seneca Lake and the Erie Canal. One recently discovered shipwreck is the packet boat, and is already yielding important new information.
“The packet boat, which was one of the top vessels we hoped to find, provided a critical link for passenger travel throughout the canal from 1820 until about 1860,” Cohn stated.
After 1860, the expanding railroad lines proved more effective at moving people and the packet boats disappeared almost overnight. When the survey began, no archaeological example of this once-prevalent mode of travel had been located – until now.
“As our team of archaeologists continues to document and evaluate shipwreck targets already found by the survey, we look forward to bringing to the public new and exciting discoveries that connect us to the maritime heritage of the Finger Lakes,” Cohn said.
• Seneca Lake, like all the Finger Lakes, was formed more than 10,000 years ago when it was carved out of the landscape by the slowly retreating glaciers.
• The positive impacts of the Erie Canal’s completion in October 1825 were immediately felt and canal advocates soon began planning for its expansion. In addition, many communities across New York State became afflicted by “canal mania” as many began to visualize the opportunities of extending the canal into their region.
• The Seneca Lake Archaeological and Bathymetric Survey provided a geological record – captured by sonar – that revealed ancient landslides believed to be caused by earthquakes, and other features that were first identified on Lake Champlain. The planned post-processing of this dataset will provide environmental scientists with a new lens in which to study the geophysical processes occurring within the lake.