World’s Only Known Shipwrecked ‘Packet Boat’ Found on the Bottom of Seneca Lake

World’s Only Known Shipwrecked ‘Packet Boat’ Found on the Bottom of Seneca Lake

This is Part 2 of my interview with nautical archaeologist Art Cohn.

Underwater exploration is such an exciting topic to me. This is my second interview with Arthur Cohn from the Lake Champlain, NY, area, talking about his exciting findings on the bottom of Seneca Lake. Art is very knowledgeable about maritime history, especially in the Great Lakes and Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. He’s extensively studied shipwrecks and sunken canal boats and barges.

In recent years, thanks to funding and technological advances in sonar scoping and underwater cameras, he’s helped map several sunken boats, including a treasure so precious that the New York State Governor (at the time she was the appointed interim Governor) Kathy Hochul announced it at a press conference at Sampson State Park in the fall of 2021.

If you missed Part 1, go search it out on my YouTube Channel.

Here are Art’s findings on some truly amazing shipwrecks found on the bottom of Seneca Lake, including one he calls a true treasure — a cargo bus called a packet boat.

New York’s Canal System is a Historic Treasure

This year, 2023, is the 200th anniversary of the Champlain Canal completion. So in 1823 the Champlain Canal opened, then two years later (1825) the Erie Canal was completed. The 200-year anniversary was a catalyst to reexamine canal history, part of New York’s maritime heritage. For Art Cohn, a nautical archaeologist, it was an opportunity — and a challenge — to explore the legacy of the canal system.

Canal boats and the canal system moved goods (and people) from place to place on watery roadways more efficient than the roads of the day. Just like our modern tractor trailers deliver goods, canal boats did the same back 150-200 years ago. Most of the canals were fairly shallow, but they opened up to rivers and lakes like Seneca and other Finger Lakes.

With that much boat travel, there were going to be accidents, and now 200 years later, there’s a lot to be learned from shipwrecks of that era. Art said the most coveted sunken boats were the true shipwrecks, which were canal boats that sank in unplanned circumstances, while operating in its day and doing the activities they were designed to do. Some boats were deliberately sunk as they were deemed to no longer be functioning, but they’re not generally as interesting as a true shipwreck.

True shipwrecks are an archaeologic treasure that provides a lot of interesting information about life and circumstances for those unfortunate enough to go down with ship. For us, it’s an interesting find, but for the families that operated these canal boats, it was a true tragedy. It represented the worst day of that family’s life. If they were carrying cargo like coal, when the wind blew or a storm came up, those ships sank. For us it’s just an interesting find, but for the families, they often lost their lives.

The bicentennial of the NYS canal system was a great excuse to go out and find these canal era shipwrecks, because they fill in missing historical links. Up until a few years ago, Seneca Lake hadn’t been formally surveyed with sonar, so it was unexplored territory. Art suspected there would potentially be an interesting collection of early shipwrecks on the bottom of Seneca Lake, and he wasn’t disappointed.

How Were the Sunken Boats Located?

Seneca Lake is deep, about 600 feet deep, so explorers on Art’s team didn’t dive to the wrecks. They sent sonar to map to bottom to find the shipwrecks, get their position, then went back with an ROV — a remote operated vehicle — equipped with cameras to “see” the findings. Then the site was recorded in real time with images to the surface boats.

“Seneca Lake has really produced an extraordinary collection of canal boat shipwrecks,” said Cohn.

Several early, intact canal boats were found on the bottom of Seneca Lake in deep locations using this technology and repeated explorations over the past four years. These findings exceeded every expectation Art’s team had. A total of about 16 sunken boats were found and studied.

Invasive Mussels Encrust the Shipwrecks

Even though the lake is very cold at the bottom, just above freezing, and not salt water (which helps preserve wooden shipwrecks), most of the sunken boats are now found encrusted with invasive quagga mussels, which will degrade the structure over time in the years to come.

Because these mussels will have a destabilizing impact on these vessels, it’s a good thing the vessels are being found now, video recorded, mapped, and recorded for history.

The Most Significant Finding

Of the 16 shipwrecks found, Art said what they were really hoping to find was from the earliest days of the NYS canal system, in use around 1830 — a packet boat. These were not freight carriers, these were like buses for transporting 70-80 people that traveled on them.

These boats had a bar, a ladies cabin, a men’s cabin, a kitchen, and at night the seats folded down so people could sleep on them.

The findings were sequentially numbered, and target #7 turned out to be a packet boat and this was found in 2021. The video ends with excerpts from a press conference announcing this exciting find. This is called the world’s only known surviving packet boat. The study of this boat produced 3D images that allowed scientists to learn about how people traveled during a time when stage coaches were moving people out west in America, because relatively little was known about this type of travel in upstate New York’s canal system. That’s quite a treasure, and it’s sitting on the bottom of Seneca Lake!

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