Governor Cuomo announces underwater research project to preserve Seneca Lake shipwrecks, history


(WETM) – Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today announced The Seneca Lake Archaeological and Bathymetric Survey Project, an underwater exploration occurring on Seneca Lake that aims to preserve the history of New York’s Canals.

The project will use state-of-the-art equipment to capture never-before-seen images of intact Canal shipwrecks from the early 19th Century in the deepest waters of the lake. The discoveries made during this exploration will enhance future curriculum and educational material for students learning about the iconic Erie Canal and the State’s Canal system.

In addition, the bathymetric survey will map the underwater terrain while collecting information on water quality and Seneca Lake’s ecosystem.  

“The storied history of New York State is intrinsically tied to the Erie Canal, and we have a duty to not only preserve that history, but to make it real for all New Yorkers,” Governor Cuomo said. “The technology being used on Seneca Lake allows us to see and better understand what lies within the lake’s depths, and through these expeditions, we’re adding to the state’s historical record. This project will further cement the Empire State’s far-reaching legacy while educating generations to come.”

The underwater research project is a collaboration between the New York Power Authority, New York State Canal Corporation, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historical Preservation, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, New York State Museum, Finger Lakes Boating Museum, the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, Middlebury College, and the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor.

Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul said, “We are merging historical and technological achievements to bring the story of a New York State gem, the Erie Canal, to life. Not only will the history we uncover help us build a deeper bond with the bold and audacious legacy of our state, but it will also further aid in our mission for a greener tomorrow – protecting our state’s environmental interests and helping us better understand our local ecosystems.”

Launching from the marina at Sampson State Park, the research team is working in Seneca Lake this summer with newly acquired deep-water Remote Operated Vehicle technology, which enables the capture of high-resolution imaging of a collection of intact Canal shipwrecks in the deepest regions of Seneca Lake. Earlier expeditions in 2018 and 2019, previously uncovered the remains of up to 16 Canal boats from the early 19th century—including what is believed to be the first-ever identified intact remains of a Canal packet boat dating back to the early 1800s.

Assemblyman Phil Palmesano said, “I am pleased to join in the announcement by the New York State Canal Corporation and other state agencies about the underwater research project that will provide a detailed look at the historic shipwrecks within the depths of Seneca Lake.  This exciting new venture will add another facet to the rich history that makes up the Finger Lakes Region. It is an exciting collaborative effort of federal, state and local partners that will culminate into an educational opportunity for students in New York Schools to learn about the history of ships that have navigated Seneca Lake and the state’s Canal System.”

The Canal Corporation, in partnership with the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, envisions the development of a series of educational resources for New York State teachers and students in grades 6-12 to supplement the Seneca Lake Archaeological and Bathymetric Survey Project. The Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor team will work with teachers from school districts throughout the Finger Lake Region to develop lesson plans which will be easily adaptable for classroom use.

The research group’s discoveries come at the same time of the ongoing State-supported replica construction of the Seneca Chief, Governor DeWitt Clinton’s 1825 Canal packet boat, at Buffalo’s Canalside Longshed Building, as well as the recent announcement by the United States Mint of a new $1 American Innovation Coin from New York featuring a packet boat navigating on the historic Erie Canal.  The coin will be available for public purchase from the U.S. Mint this summer.

Principal Investigator and Finger Lakes Boating Museum Affiliated Scholar Art Cohen said, “Today, we announce that the first known archaeological example of a packet boat has just been discovered in the deep waters of Seneca Lake. The new discovery is providing new information about vessel design, construction and use and is a true connection to America’s and New York State’s past.”

Director Emeritus and Founder of the Buffalo Maritime Center John Montague said, “The Seneca Lake Survey Team’s discoveries could not be timelier. Not only does this underwater archaeology promise fresh information for our current project, building a replica of Gov. DeWitt Clinton’s 1825 Erie Canal Boat, Seneca Chief, but the team’s work will do much to generate public excitement and enthusiasm for New York’s Canal heritage and the upcoming Erie Canal Bicentennial.”

The Seneca Lake Archaeological and Bathymetric Survey Project is occurring under permit through the New York State Museum, and all the remains and artifacts of the vessels discovered are the property of the State of New York.

Packet boats were the marvel of their age as they moved travelers east and west along the new Erie Canal route across New York State between the Hudson River and 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. Typically towed by three horses in a line, the packet boats had right-of-way for locking through, provided comfortable, long-distance transportation with on-board lodging, meals and even had sleeping arrangements. They were an instant success, extending travel to every community served by the new Erie Canal and the adjoining smaller canals. Packet boats revolutionized travel until the new railroads began to offer passenger service along many of the same routes. Most packet boats disappeared before the age of photography and most of what is known of their design comes from paintings and other illustrations from their time. 

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