At Watkins Glen, Tim Caza (L) and Dennis Gerber (R) deploy one of the RV Voyager's two side-scan-sonar survey units in preparation for examining the lake bottom in that area.
Through underwater exploration, The Seneca Lake Archaeological and Bathymetric* Survey Project aims to preserve the history of New York’s Canals. The project uses state of the art equipment to capture never before seen images of intact Canal shipwrecks from the early 19th century discovered in the deepest parts of the lake.
This research project is a collaboration between the New York Power Authority, NYS Canal Corporation, NYS Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historical Preservation, NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, NYS Museum, the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, Middlebury College, the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, and the Finger Lakes Boating Museum where it will inform future interpretive plans.
The Seneca Lake Archaeological and Bathymetric Survey Project is occurring under permit through the NYS Museum and all remains and artifacts of the vessels discovered are the property of the State of New York.
*Bathymetry is the measurement of the depth of water in oceans, rivers, or lakes. Bathymetric maps look a lot like topographic maps, which use lines to show the shape and elevation of land features. On topographic maps, the lines connect points of equal elevation. On bathymetric maps, they connect points of equal depth. –National Geographic
Art Cohn is the project’s principal investigator and scholar. He began conducting underwater archaeological surveys on Lake Champlain where he partnered with the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. His focus turned to the Erie Canal and the Finger Lakes after working with NYS Canal Corporation and the Corning Museum of Glass’ 2018 GlassBarge project that commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Brooklyn Flint Glass Company relocating to Corning via New York’s waterways in 2018. Cohn and the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum invited people aboard the Lois McClure that towed the GlassBarge to learn about what life was like on board a 19th century canal barge. Cohn also created an educational booklet for the project. This experience ignited his ideas about the Seneca Lake shipwrecks.
Survey specialist Tim Caza prepares the Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) to be sent to record a shipwreck in the deep waters of Seneca Lake.
“In the booklet that I put together at the request of the Corning Museum of Glass, I teased the shipwreck story… by looking at Seneca Lake and what lies beneath,” said Cohn. “In doing this research we’ve gotten a little glimpse at the amount of activity on the lake.t is hard to appreciate that kind of work today with all the beautiful vineyards, but this was a hardworking canal-related waterway with many canal boats doing the work of today's interstate highways and tractor trailers.” Through his research and experience underwater mapping Lake Champlain, Cohn knew that there were cultural resources submerged in Seneca Lake. “I was convinced that Seneca Lake had the potential to produce a number of early canal shipwrecks and if we hit the grand slam we might even find a packet boat, the missing link in canal boat types archaeologically speaking. The wonderful incentive is that we are in the bicentennial period and the Buffalo Maritime Center is building one using what we know about construction 200 years ago with artwork and descriptions of packet boats for reference. Before now, we had never located an archaeological example.” The discoveries from the project come at the same time as an ongoing State-supported replica construction of the Seneca Chief, Governor DeWitt Clinton’s 1825 Canal packet boat, at Buffalo’s Canalside Longshed Building. On October 26, 1825 Governor Clinton journeyed from Buffalo to New York City on the Seneca Chief carrying two wooden barrels of Lake Erie water. Eight days later, he arrived at New York City and emptied the water into the Atlantic Ocean to marry the waters as a symbol of the importance of this canal.
The Erie Canal at Salina Street in Syracuse NY c. 1900. Library of Congress
Packet boats traveled east and west along the Erie Canal from the Hudson River to the Great Lakes. Even before the Erie Canal was completed in 1825, these passenger carrying packet boats began operating on the newly completed sections of the canal. Packet boats provided a smooth and speedy alternative to the stagecoaches operating on the often rough road systems until railroads began offering passenger service. Most packet boats fell out of use before the invention of photography and most of what is known of their design comes from paintings and illustrations.
Expeditions since 2018 have uncovered 17 vessels in their studies of Seneca Lake including what is believed to be the first-ever identified intact remains of a canal packet boat dating back to the early 1800s. “It doesn’t often happen quite that well,” said Cohn. “It’s a great reaffirmation that New York waters contain submerged cultural resources. We as a society need to know that, inventory them, protect them, learn from them, and preserve them for the next generation.”
Finger Lakes Boating Museum
The project originally included the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, but as the dynamics of the project shifted towards Seneca Lake and the Finger Lakes region, Cohn began thinking about where he wanted to center this phase “Where do we want to interpret what we find, where would you want to build the education programs, where would you want to start the exhibition design and it’s a Finger Lakes project,” said Cohn. Cohn searched for a Finger Lakes museum partner.
Outside the Finger Lakes Boating Museum in Hammondsport, NY
“Art Cohn came to the museum a couple of years ago to give a talk about his underwater studies and told me that he was planning on relocating to the Finger Lakes region to start mapping underwater wrecks,” said Finger Lakes Boating Museum Executive Director Andrew Tompkins. The Finger Lakes Boating Museum agreed to serve as the administrative hub and fiscal sponsor for the survey project.
The Finger Lakes Boating Museum has over 200 boats in their collection built in the region between the early 1900s to the 1960s. The museum moved into the historic former Taylor Wine Company just outside the village of Hammondsport in 2014, to a 14 acre campus with 18 buildings. Tompkins saw this partnership as an opportunity for the museum to expand its interpretation.
“Cohn brings a lot of expertise and this would be a completely different aspect to our museum,” said Tompkins. “It would help us expand from just pleasure crafts as well as bringing recognition to our museum. This research could bring in an entirely new thing about boating in the Finger Lakes for our museum to interpret in terms of these underwater wrecks and the underwater canal boats,” said Tompkins. “It’s something we’ve never really focused on before. The museum has a steam boat room where we interpret how steamboats pulled canal boats into the canal system but we’ve never really focused on canal boats.” Tompkins noted that there just aren’t a lot of canal boats left anymore. “What we have are small, hand built, scaled models. So to be part of this project is so important.” In addition to being the project’s administrative hub and fiscal sponsor, the Finger Lakes Boating Museum will also house the space to interpret the project.
Inside the Finger Lakes Boating Museum
“I was impressed with the level of enthusiasm at the Finger Lakes Boating Museum,” said Cohn. “They’re kind of an up and coming museum and are doing the hard work to make the museum sustainable and looking towards the future.” Tompkins is the only paid full time staff person at the museum, but is working with the museum’s board to develop a plan on what kind of staff will be needed to accomplish these goals. The museum is also looking at plans and ideas of how the museum campus will look in the future. Some buildings are already undergoing renovation including a new visitor’s center that is expected to open next spring. Tompkins envisions that at least one building will be devoted to the project.
“We’re on board to help Art and this project and are excited to bring more recognition to the museum and bring a whole new aspect to our interpretation.”
NYS Canal Corporation and the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor
One key goal of this project is to use the discoveries made during this exploration to enhance future curriculum and educational material for students learning about the Erie Canal and the State’s Canal system.
The NYS Canal Corporation in partnership with the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor hopes to develop a series of educational resources working with teachers from school districts throughout the Finger Lakes region for NYS teachers and students in grades 6-12.
“This is an exciting moment in the storied history of our State’s Canal system as we discover and further document these new artifacts,” said NYS Canal Corporation Director Brian U. Stratton. “The underwater research done in Seneca Lake will educate future generations and will also entice travelers to visit the Canal system to experience it for what it really is – a scenic waterway that tells the story of how New York emerged as the Empire State, and how our nation’s westward expansion was made possible.”
“This collaborative effort is another example of how our extraordinary Canal heritage continues to be part of understanding and solving today’s challenges,” said Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor Executive Director Bob Radliff. “We are excited to partner with the New York Power Authority, Canal Corporation, and Art Cohn and his research team, along with numerous Finger Lakes schools, to develop Next Generation learning opportunities.”
Researchers will continue their work through this fall and in the years ahead on Cayuga and Keuka Lakes. Cohn’s findings will help teach the public about the Erie Canal’s past during its bicentennial celebration that runs through 2025. The discovered vessels, many covered in zebra mussels, are described by Cohn as time capsules and informers of the past. “If you don’t share it with the public then you’re not doing your job,” said Cohn. “A big part of my job is to figure out the many different ways I can make this information available.” Cohn’s findings are already being shared at free public lectures throughout the Finger Lakes this summer and at the Finger Lakes Boating Museum and the Institute of Nautical Archaeology.
For Cohn and this project, partnerships have been essential. “The more ways we can develop the information that can be utilized by organizations and institutions to help share a body of knowledge with the public then we’re going to do that as best we can.”
Learn more about this project: https://americancanalsociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Seneca_Lake_Survey_2019_ONLINE_VERSION.pdf Learn more about the Finger Lakes Boating Museum: https://www.flbm.org/