Exploring Shipwrecks on the Bottom of Seneca Lake: Interview With a Nautical Archaeologist

Exploring Shipwrecks on the Bottom of Seneca Lake: Interview With a Nautical Archaeologist

This is Part One of a two-part series I did with Arthur Cohn in December 2022.

Of the 11 Finger Lakes in upstate New York, Seneca Lake takes center stage. It’s pretty much in the middle as the seventh finger. It’s the largest Finger Lake by water volume, and the second longest by length at 35 miles, just shorter than Cayuga. It’s very deep, in some places more than 600 feet deep.

Seneca Lake: Watery Superhighway of the 1800s

Major maritime traffic took place on all the Finger Lakes in the 1800s, including Seneca, where transportation between Watkins Glen and Geneva was heavy. Steamboats and barges transported people and goods continuously for decades. And some of these vessels ended up sinking.
Because Seneca is so deep and cold, plus the fact that it’s not salt water, the bottom holds a temperature just above freezing, it’s a perfect environment for preserving wooden shipwrecks.

Meet Arthur Cohn, a Nautical Archaeologist

People always wondered what’s down there, but it wasn’t until recently the lake began giving up its deep secrets thanks to technology and the expertise of my special guest in this interview, Arthur Cohn, a nautical archaeologist with decades of experience with local lakes and maritime history.
He’s an affiliated scholar with the Institute of Nautical Archaeology with Texas A&M, and co-founder and director emeritus of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum.
Art has done a series of explorations on what’s at the bottom of Seneca Lake. For the past four years, he’s done work with the Finger Lakes Boating Museum in Hammondsport, the NYS Museum, the DEC, the Canal Corporation and Power Authority and other NYS agencies to explore what’s at the bottom of Seneca Lake. His role to systematically and methodically document and explore this mysterious underwater terrain.
His study of canal boats began more than 40 years ago as a diver on Lake Champlain, which — like Seneca Lake — was a maritime super highway. With all this travel, some ships ended up sinking.

Exploring Shipwrecks Using Sonar & Sub Cameras

Exploring these shipwrecks has only become possible with advanced scanning technology and robotic submarine cameras in recent years.
“We now know [shipwrecks] have the potential to yield an incredible amount of focused information about the past,” said Cohn. “Using 3-D shipwreck archeology and you combine it with the historical record, you put those two lenses together, you get what I call the best time machine that we currently have to understand the way past societies operated.”
Art’s work also includes collaborating with people who measure, study and draft shipwrecks, and then back-engineering newly-constructed replicas. You can actually build a clone from history.
Our goal was to take an actual historic watercraft and recreate this in our time, and that has been done, Art said. One was built and the public was invited to see it in Burlington, Vermont. These narrow canvas barge boats were operated by families, where mom, dad, kids and animals lived on the boat. They lived on the boat in the stern cabin, it was the mobile home of the day.
On the canal, horses and mules pulled these boats on one side, called the tow path, the draft animals would walk with a 300-foot tow path pulling the boat along these canals. They were the power source of canal travel for about a hundred years, and this travel went all over New York State, from Buffalo to Albany and all points in between on these watery passageways.
In the 1800s, once a canal boat arrived at a lake port, a big steamboat would typically line up pull 25 of these canal boats from Geneva to Watkins Glen, or back. That’s how they typically traveled across the lakes, laden with the goods they were transporting. A few had sails are were able to sail across the lakes, but most canal barges needed to be towed to their next destination.

Inevitably Some Boats Sank

So why are there so many shipwrecks on the bottom of Seneca Lake? The typical explanation isa lot of these boats were loaded heavy, and when the lake kicked up wind and waves, and that escalated to whitecaps, some of these boats couldn’t take it and a percentage of them sank.
“And that’s the explanation for why we have this historical collection,” said Cohn.
In 2023, New York State will celebrate the Bicentennial to commemorate the important opening of the Champlain Canal in 1823, and its important brother, the Erie Canal which opened in 1825. There’s a legacy of this historic canal system all throughout New York State for families to explore today.

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