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Governor Cuomo Announces Underwater Research Project to Preserve New York's Treasured Canal History Occurring on Seneca Lake

Aug 3, 2021

- 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 treasured history of New York's Canals by using 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.

Video of Underwater Research Can Be Found Here

"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."

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."

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.

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.

New York Power Authority President and CEO Gil. Quiniones said, "New York's Canals are living historical monuments and through these discoveries we are learning just how steeped in rich history our scenic waterways truly are. With the support of Governor Cuomo and our research partners, we are set to build on these historic discoveries, while promoting sustainability and curiosity."

New York State Canal Corporation Director Brian U. Stratton said, "This is an exciting moment in the storied history of our State's Canal system as we discover and further document these new artifacts. 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 our nation's westward expansion was made possible."

State Parks Commissioner Erik Kulleseid said, "A key part of our mission at State Parks is preservation of this State's amazing history, and we are proud to have supported this important mapping project with a $15,000 grant from our Historic Preservation Division. What is being learned here will help better document and explain Seneca Lake's critical role as Canals drove New York's economic development during the 19th century, as well as provide a much more detailed picture of today's marine environment in the deepest of the Finger Lakes."

State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos said, "Deploying this new and innovative technology bolsters both the State's ongoing, multi-agency efforts to protect water quality and supports the work of New York historians by providing a unique opportunity to explore the lake's depths. The research effort announced today will help DEC scientists gain a better understanding of historical trends in this ecosystem and advance our goals of educating the next generation of conservationists and aspiring historians."

Senator Pamela Helming said, "Canal Corporation, NYPA and NYS Parks are critical partners in the effort to share and preserve the history of the Finger Lakes. The recent historical discoveries in Seneca Lake are an exciting development and I look forward to continuing to work with our partners in state government to share these with local residents, students and visitors alike."

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."

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."

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.

Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor Executive Director Bob Radliff said, "This collaborative effort is another example of how our extraordinary Canal heritage continues to be part of understanding and solving today's challenges. 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."

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.

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.

New York State Education Commissioner and President of the University of the State of New York Betty A. Rosa said, "This is an exciting collaboration between several New York State agencies, local cultural institutions, and colleges to identify and research on one of the most important time periods in New York State history. The identification and preservation of these underwater canal boats will shed new information on 19th century technology and commerce during an era when New York State led the world in these endeavors."

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.