New York's Underwater Museum
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Hudson River Maritime Museum's 2017 issue of the Pilot Log.
The economic, military and social history of New York is inextricably linked to the role of its abundant waterways and deep harbors. The pervasive influence of shipping and naval defense in the development of the state over four centuries of Euro-American history is rarely recognized. Historians have investigated some of its highlights, such as the pioneering efforts of Fulton and Livingston in the development of steam propulsion, New York’s role in the development of scheduled packets, and the state’s contributions to the clipper ship, but far less is known about the workaday ships, boats and barges that built and sustained the economy and security of New Yorkers well into the twentieth century. Even less is known about the highly skilled individuals who made their lives building and operating these craft or the communities of sailors and mariners that they formed. Underwater archaeology is a relatively new avenue of inquiry that can offer new and important insights into this history.
New York State’s extensive waterborne navigation and trade inevitably led to accidents and sinkings. The state’s numerous waterways, and cold fresh waters have in many instances preserved these ships, their cargoes, and their people. It is estimated that there may be 10,000 shipwrecks in New York. At least 300 have been observed through remote sensing in the Hudson River alone. The State’s bottomlands represent one of the greatest maritime museums in North America. As such, this extensive collection of shipwrecks and all they contain must be managed and interpreted for the benefit of all.
While not as immediately accessible as our brick and mortar museums, wreck sites offer direct and unbiased evidence of the past, including both familiar and unfamiliar episodes. Documented shipwrecks and submerged battlefields have provided dramatic insights into New York’s role in the French and Indian War, the naval defense of the Hudson River and Lake Champlain during the Revolutionary War, and the Battle of Plattsburgh Bay during the War of 1812. As expected, well-preserved canal boats have been found in deep water in the Finger Lakes and Lake Champlain and larger carriers under steam and sail have been documented in the approaches to New York harbor and in lakes Erie and Ontario. The physical and archaeological integrity of New York’s shipwrecks comes as a surprise to many. In the cold deep waters of the Great Lakes, sailing ships are often physically complete with masts still erect, as if someone placed a plastic ship model in an aquarium. Some contain human remains and the personal effects of those who perished. Canal boats in the Finger Lakes have been seen with window glass in the cabins and household items scattered inside. In the Hudson River, sunken sloops are sometimes protected by deep accumulations of sediment and still contain undelivered freight such as a deck load of brick or a hold full of intact earthenware -- virtual time capsules of life and industry in the nineteenth century.
Unexpected wreck sites have also appeared. Often, these challenge our understanding of the past. In recent years, our underwater museum revealed the presence of a fantastic, multi-faceted French and Indian War gun battery fitted with gunports and propelled by sweeps; forensic minute-by-minute evidence of evolving ship formations during the Battle of Valcour Island in 1776; alternatives to the pivoted centerboard in commercial sloops and schooners; sailing canal boats with hinged masts for transit through canal, river and lake; and cargoes of commodities and manufactured goods reflecting the evolving economy of the Empire State. Imagine the insights to be learned when, in the future, we discover the wreck of a seventeenth-century sloop engaged in trade between New York, Albany and perhaps the West Indies?
All museums face challenges in keeping the lights on, caring for and preventing the loss of collections, establishing appropriate climate control and finding new educational approaches to engage with ever-changing audiences. New York’s underwater museum is no different. There is little public money available to help. The artifacts in this museum are constantly under threat of theft and vandalism, and there is no hope of meeting museum climate control standards. Perhaps the biggest challenge is indifference. For all but few, shipwrecks are truly ‘out of sight, out of mind’. As a consequence, state and federal agencies have been slow to address the much needed management and protection of these resources. Progress in this area is further complicated by the fact that no single New York State agency is responsible for managing archaeological properties on the state’s bottomlands. A series of state agencies have tangential jurisdictions and policies related to shipwrecks and underwater lands, but without unified leadership, new and more effective policies and approaches are unlikely to emerge.
The underwater museum is also beset by a long list of myths and misconceptions spread by fiction writers, treasure hunters and hucksters. The actual laws relating to shipwrecks and cultural resources are virtually unknown. Many falsely believe that shipwrecks are primarily important for the gold they may have and that the principle of “finders-keepers” is valid, allowing divers to take whatever they want from historic wreck sites. Some believe that newly discovered wreck sites may be “arrested” by salvors for private enrichment, setting the stage for negotiations with the state over what may be taken and what may be given back to the state. In New York State, disturbing historic shipwrecks for anything other than permitted archaeological investigation is prohibited. Unfortunately, the theft of archaeological materials is difficult to investigate and rarely a priority for law enforcement. In addition, many fail to appreciate that most materials submerged underwater for long periods of time cannot survive removal from the water without laboratory treatment. Many ‘would-be collectors’ have discovered this the hard way when their prized wooden souvenirs turn to dust and are lost forever.
Those wishing to visit the underwater museum may inadvertently damage its collections through carelessness. Unlike brick and mortar museums which provide staff and are able to greet visitors as they enter and leave, our underwater lands are unstaffed and unable to ask patrons to refrain from handling the exhibits or maintaining buoyancy control. Over time, divers can damage fragile wrecks by anchoring boats to wrecks, climbing onto and into wrecks, and handling or snagging fragile elements such as rails, tillers, wheels and small parts. The practice of dragging an anchor until it snags a wreck is particularly damaging. Eventually, it destroys the wreck. An especially well-preserved canal boat in Seneca Lake was ruined some years ago when a dive boat anchor pulled her fragile cabin off and left it upside down in the mud. Dive preserves with independently anchored mooring buoys effectively prevent this kind of damage and must be expanded throughout the state.
History has stirred the imagination of others who would remove entire wrecks and place them on land for exhibit. In all but a handful of attempts, these projects have underestimated the long-term cost of recovering and conserving a shipwreck, and overestimated the public funding and gate receipts available to finance these projects. This is a recipe for defeat and destruction. Failed recoveries in New York State in the early twentieth-century included a French and Indian War sloop in Lake George, the Revolutionary War gunboat Duke of Cumberland and the armed Revolutionary War schooner Royal Savage. The poster child for all that can go wrong with such projects is the Great Lakes schooner Alvin Clark in Michigan. The intact 1847 schooner was raised by enthusiastic amateurs in 1969 and after being pumped out actually floated on her own keel. Full of determination but with little appreciation of the costs involved and no realistic plan for conserving the ship or financing the operation, the project quickly soured, ruining the schooner and the project’s chief promoter. The sinking, rotting and collapsing schooner was dragged onto land where she was bulldozed only 25 years later. Successful recoveries are rare. They require a publically compelling ship, a science-based plan for long-term conservation, and a sober budget with realistic sources of continuing revenue. The Swedish warship Vasa, Henry VIII’s flagship Mary Rose, the Confederate submarine Hunley and the turret from the U.S. ironclad Monitor are among the very few success stories to date.
Environmental conditions present challenges as well. While in-situ preservation, the equivalent of “do no harm” in medicine, is often the best available option for most wreck sites, chemical degradation including oxidation, biological agents including mussels and worms and natural forces including erosion and moving debris all play a role in the gradual deterioration of shipwrecks. These forces are greatly lessened in deep, cold fresh water, but are still present. The advent of invasive species such as zebra mussels represents a new and growing threat. Mussels rapidly colonize wrecks, hasten the degradation of iron fasteners and add considerable weight to fragile structures.
Historic wreck sites may also be damaged through dredging, the remediation of contaminated bottomland soils, and the construction of pipelines, cable conduits, bridges, marinas and bulkheads. While these undertakings are reviewed and licensed by state and federal agencies, the destruction of archaeological resources typically proceeds if alternatives are found to be impractical. Attempts are made to offset the destruction through recordation and, in some instances, the salvage and conservation of some artifacts.
New York’s rich and extensive collection of historic shipwrecks provides a rare educational opportunity to re-examine the past and to gain fresh insights into how this state evolved into the Empire State.
In order for shipwrecks to become meaningful to the public, they must first become much more accessible. Scuba diving is not for everyone and not all wreck sites are or should be visited by divers due to depth, hazardous conditions or fragility. For divers, historic shipwrecks throughout the state that are safe and interesting should be identified and designated as submerged heritage preserves and equipped with anchored mooring buoys and orientation signage. Submerged heritage preserves support tourism and have positive economic impacts for host communities. Divers and their families spend money on lodgings, restaurants, local retailers and other area attractions in addition to air fills and boat charters. For non-divers and divers alike, wrecks can be made virtually accessible on land through imaginative interpretation. Traditional museum interpretive techniques including photography, graphics, sonar images, conserved artifacts, models and touch screen monitors that encourage topical exploration have an important function. New techniques such as shore-side information and signage, underwater video footage, virtual tours and real-time monitoring should also be explored in order to further enhance these experiences.
Sound museum practice requires shared goals, a well-defined management structure and accountable leadership in order to protect the public’s interest and the future benefits of collections. Incidentally, these are the same elements required in protecting our land and water resources. As codified by the federal Abandoned Shipwrecks Act of 1987, historic shipwrecks are in most instances public resources that must be managed by each state for the educational and recreational benefit of the public. In spite of the efforts of dedicated civil servants, educators, and technical experts over more than three decades, New York State government has yet to create the coherent management structure anticipated by the Act. Until it does so, the state cannot fully tackle the needs of these resources nor fully realize their potential benefits. In the interim, our brick and mortar maritime museums can help by convening interested individuals, supporting surveys, establishing inventories, creating exhibits and engaging the public in the continuing quest to learn, conserve and promote preservation and strong diving ethics. We must also educate our elected representatives and agency officials on the important role they can play in supporting this work through improved management, law enforcement and grants to not-for-profit organizations.
 Chief NYS agencies in this area include the Office of General Services which serves as the state’s landlord over public bottomlands; the State Museum which manages archaeological resources on public lands for the benefit of the People; the Division for Historic Preservation which is charged with identifying, documenting and protecting historic and archaeological properties; the Department of Environmental Conservation which is responsible for historic and archaeological properties within its major parks and environmental protection (including cultural resources) throughout the state; the Department of State which assists communities in waterfront planning and tourism; and the Office of the Attorney General which defends the state’s interests.
 Historic shipwrecks in NYS are protected by Section 233 of NYS Education Law and the federal Abandoned Shipwrecks Act, both of which define historic wreck sites as public property.
 State and Federal agencies are required to consider impacts to historic and archaeological sites before building, funding or licensing projects under the National Historic Preservation Act, the State Historic Preservation Act, and other laws that institutionalize historic preservation.
 Submerged Heritage Preserves have been established in Lake George and Lake Champlain as partnerships between the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation and several not-for-profit organizations. The NYS Department of State is attempting to create additional preserves in the Great Lakes, the Finger Lakes and the waters around Long Island. The Hudson River is not considered a safe environment for recreational diving as it is particularly dangerous for divers, with strong current and near-zero visibility. Novice divers should not attempt expeditions in the Hudson River.
Mark Peckham is the First Vice President of the Board of Trustees, Hudson River Maritime Museum. Peckham recently retired from the New York State Historic Preservation Office and has a deep interest in the submerged maritime history of the Hudson River.
This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
Hudson River Maritime Museum
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