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History sinks all the way to the bottom of the Finger Lakes

Diver+Michael+DeGroat+holds+a+Civil+War+bullet+he+found+at+the+bottom+of+Cayuga+Lake.
Diver Michael DeGroat holds a Civil War bullet he found at the bottom of Cayuga Lake.

Michael DeGroat and longtime friend Craig Bates were out on Cayuga Lake on a September day in 2013, when the boat’s radar picked up on a figure underwater.

“We knew we had something from that scan,” DeGroat said. “We didn’t know what. We didn’t tell anybody for months.” It would turn out to be one of the strangest discoveries to be found at the bottom of Cayuga Lake.

DeGroat and Bates kept their discovery a secret until earlier this month. They returned to the site to explore what they’d found a few days later. They had come across a shipwreck — an early canal boat built during the mid-1800s.

Although the Atlantic Ocean is the most common hotspot for shipwrecks, especially along the coasts lining the four continents that border it, the Great Lakes hold many shipwrecks, as well.

Dan Ward, Curator at the Erie Canal Museum said that the boat traffic on the lakes in the 19th century was pretty heavy, so it wasn’t a surprise to find a wreck site in Cayuga. His theory was that a steamboat was towing the canal boat during a rough storm.

“The steamboats would often cut the lines and let the boat float away,” Ward said. “If it capsized, it would pull the tug down, too.”

According to the New York State Archaeological Association, in order to preserve and protect historical findings within New York State, an individual must file with the state of Albany to make it a New York State Archaeological site. Although DeGroat and Bates discovered the wreck about a year ago, they waited until recently to share the news with others.

“Divers hate to give up their precious finds,” Bates said. “After going on it, and seeing the remarkable shape and the quality of the wreck, we figured we got to share this with people. I’d rather see people dive on it and enjoy it instead of letting it rot away.”

DeGroat said the wreck will bring more historians and divers to the Cayuga area instead of tourists.

“I think this will only slightly affect the community,” DeGroat said. “Divers and historians will care more because it’s a piece of history you can put your finger on and know it’s there.”

Bad weather is one of the most common causes of shipwrecks. There have not always been accurate 7-day weather forecasts, navigation systems and radar. Low visibility, wind, and high seas can all play a part in disaster.

Jim Kennard, a shipwreck enthusiast who focuses on wrecks in the upstate area, explained how storms are a great threat to canal boats.

“When you get further away from shore and those waves have time to build up and reinforce by the wind, the waves can really get significantly large,” Kennard said. “These canal boats really weren’t that seaworthy. If they get caught in a storm like that, they end up going wherever the wind blows them.”

Pete Scott, who has lived on Seneca Lake for 15 years, attested to the fact that the storms on these upstate lakes can be life-threatening.

“When the wind gets up to 40 or 50 knots, you get these close-space, choppy waves,” Scott said. “On the ocean, it’s actually easier [to navigate] because you get more long-spaced waves.”

DeGroat said that there was another mysterious figure near the wreck that they haven’t been able to identify or investigate yet. He said they would be back next spring or summer to look further into the mysteries that Cayuga Lake holds.

 

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