Beneath the WavesJun 30, 2021 03:10PM ● By Karey Solomon
Old-timers around Seneca Lake used to say the lake doesn’t give up its secrets. Now, with gentle coaxing, it’s doing just that.
“Driving through the Finger Lakes region, a modern-day person could be misled by the sheer beauty of the landscape and not realize just how much history is contained within those lakes,” says underwater archaeologist Arthur Cohn. This thought is often how he begins a talk about his ongoing sub-surface survey of the three largest Finger Lakes. The project, forced into hiatus in 2020, is about to resume this summer, when he hopes to finish exploring Seneca Lake and begin moving on to Keuka and Cayuga.
In 1868 when the Brooklyn Flint Glass company relocated to Corning, they moved their equipment northwest via the Erie Canal, an event commemorated in 2018 by Corning’s GlassBarge as it retraced the route with celebratory stops along the way. Cohn worked with the Corning Museum of Glass on the historical perspective of this tour, and says he’s been long fascinated by the history of the Canal system, begun in 1817 while DeWitt Clinton was in office and known for a time as “Clinton’s Ditch.” That fascination, he says, “led me to a deeper study of the maritime history of Seneca Lake. Logically there was a shipwreck collection on the bottom.”
He describes the intricate system of canals—the Erie Canal system also connected to other canals and waterways in northern Pennsylvania and beyond—as the interstate highway systems of their time, carrying goods and products to market. A family or business might invest their savings in a canal boat, typically a flat-bottomed barge built specifically to navigate the shallow waterways, powered by mules or horses who pulled the boat as they walked the towpath alongside the canal. Some rare canal boats were built with removable masts, allowing them to hoist sail and traverse the lakes using wind power. Dug mostly by hand, the canals were originally only four feet deep. A canal family could live on their boat for the nine months each year the canals were navigable, so the boats were often built with a stern cabin to serve the needs of the family and a forward cabin to house their animals. Freight was nestled in the middle.
Steamboats based in Geneva and Watkins Glen towed strings of canal boats between the two Seneca Lake ports, a system that worked well in calm weather. But an unexpected storm, a burst of wind, an unbalanced load, a woodstove-based accident, or other human error might send one or more boats to the bottom.
The treasures at the bottom of a waterway are historical, Cohn says, and his approach to what he finds and calls “underwater heritage sites” is reverent and respectful. He never forgets about the people who were present on the boat when it went down.
“I do a lot of the research, read about a family and the circumstances of their loss, and feel very connected to them,” he says. “There are accounts where the boat sank from under these people—mother, father, young children, an infant, thrown into the water in the middle of the night. When that happened, their survival depended on finding something to keep them afloat until rescue. All too often those circumstances led to horrible loss—catastrophic economic trauma at the least, losing their home, business, most possessions. If, God forbid, they lost a child...that’s very sensitive stuff.”
Launched from the marina at Samson State Park in Romulus, the RV (Research Vessel) David Folger, named for a project benefactor, uses sonar and underwater cameras to map and photograph artifacts at the bottom of the lake. When they find a potential site, they’ll set up a Coast Guard-approved mooring rather than drop anchor, which he says could be destructive, “even catastrophic,” in archeological terms.
A current point of interest the research team is hoping to explore this year is the remains of an early packet boat. “Designed not for freight but passengers—think of a Greyhound bus—when canals opened, packet boats were the only real alternatives to getting from Albany to the Great Lakes,” Cohn says, adding the only other choices were bad roads or smaller, less reliable watercraft. “We think we might have found one in Seneca Lake,” he says with excitement.
The results of this research will be shared with the Buffalo Maritime Center in Buffalo, which is currently constructing a reproduction of the Seneca Chief, the packet boat that sailed from Buffalo to New York Harbor in 1825 to herald the completion of the Erie Canal. The reproduction boat is slated to undertake the same route on that bicentennial in 2025.
The lakes’ cold freshwater environment helps preserve an archaeological record that not only encompasses canal history but also pre-canal watercraft, Native American, and military artifacts, as well as the occasional car, parts of a house washed downhill in a flood, and unexpected bits and pieces. Unfortunately, it’s also home to a gazillion quagga mussels, who encrust every submerged surface. A tiny mollusk related to the zebra mussel, the quaggas could be damaging these underground treasures. At this time, it’s guess work as to how much destruction they’ll wreak; previous research indicates they will ultimately destroy the boats’ iron fittings.
While everything is documented, only photographs and information are brought up from the bottom. These are shared with the public at the Finger Lakes Boating Museum in Hammondsport via their website flbm.org and, it is expected, in future exhibits. There’s also a beautifully-illustrated progress report available at the Hammondsport museum for $25 whose title, Seneca Lake Archaeological and Bathymetric Survey Book, belies the wealth of information and history between its covers.
“The boating museum has taken over sponsorship of the project,” explains Director Andrew Tompkins. “We’ve focused on post-World War II pleasure craft, and boats from 1920s through 1960s [before fiberglass], so when Art came to us, we thought that was a great fit for the museum. We don’t have that canal component, so it was natural for us to work with him on it. We’ll be doing a lot [with his research] in the coming years.”