Warren County Historical Society Presents …
The Digital Version “REWIND”
July 1, 2016
The Submerged Heritage Preserves in Lake George
Radeau – Powered by wind and man, the radeau was used on
Lake George and Lake Champlain.
Submerged Heritage Preserves are historic shipwrecks and other submerged archaeological resources. They are marked by a round mooring buoy and a barrel-shaped navigation aid buoy. The buoys mark the spots for potential divers who wish to visit the site.
There are three preserves in Lake George. The first two were opened to divers in 1993. They include The Sunken Fleet of 1758 and the motor launch, Forward. The third preserve, Land Tortoise, a 1758 Floating Gun Battery, opened to divers in 1994.
In 1997, a 23-foot long colonial bateau replica was sunk at the Sunken Fleet site to enhance the site for scuba divers. In 1997 and 1998, the Forward site was enhanced by the addition of several stations allowing divers to learn about the ecology of the lake.
A map of Lake George sunken fleet sites:
The Land Tortoise – A Floating Gun Battery
The autumn of 1758 saw the French and English forces in a struggle for the New World Empire. Following the loss of Fort William Henry in 1757, the allied British, Iroquois, and American provincials suffered a devastating defeat in their assault on Fort Carillon (Fort Ticonderoga) in July of 17588. Undeterred, the British and their allies constructed new fortification and warships, including two radeaux to serve as floating gun batteries, to dislodge the French from Lake George and Lake Champlain.
The Land Tortoise may be the sole survivor of a class of military vessels unique to Lakes George and Lake Champlain in the 18th century. Constructed in 1758 by provincial troops under the supervision of Captain Samuel Cobb, the radeau (French for raft) was to serve as a floating artillery platform. Just over 50 feet long and 16 to 18 feet wide, the flat-bottomed vessel was propelled by 26 oars. The Land Tortoise had seven cannon ports in her sides. The angular lines and sloping bulwarks protected the crew from enemy firs. Never fully rigged out, the radeau lacked masts, artillery and other hardware.
The construction of the Land Tortoise and its scuttling to store it under winter lake ice are described in soldiers’ journals. The soldiers worked hard into the night of October 22, 1758, to scuttle the vessel. The Land Tortoise settled in much deeper water than intended and was not recoverable the following spring. Another radeau, the Invincible, had to be built by the British for the 1759 campaign.
The fate of the Land Tortoise was unknown until 1990, when its peculiar seven-sided image appeared during a side-scan sonar survey of the lake by members of a group that later became known as Bateaux Below, Inc. Archaeological and historical research identified the vessel as an 18th century radeau. From 1991 to 1994, the Land Tortoise was studied by a team of volunteer divers under the direction of a professional archaeologist. In 1995, the Land Tortoise was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The vessel has also been designated by the Smithsonian Institution as “the oldest intact war vessel in North America.
The vessel is located in the South Basin in mid-lake nearly two miles north of Million Dollar Beach.
The Sunken Fleet of 1758
From 1755 to 1763, Britain and France fought in the French and Indian War. Lake George was the focus of this struggle during the autumn of 1758. Both sides at the time were using the bateau (plural is bateaux) as a warship.
A bateau was typically 25 to 35 feet long with flaring sides and raked bows and sterns. They were usually propelled by oars or poles and steered by a stern sweep. Built of pine planks on oak frames, the warships could be rapidly produces and used for moving troops and supplies.
Whenever possible, Colonial armies moved via water to avoid marching through dangerous and roadless wilderness. As many as 900 bateaux were used against French-held Fort Carillon (later renamed Fort Ticonderoga) in the summer of 1758.
The Sunken Fleet of 1758, which includes 7 original boats and a replica, lies off the eastern shore near the site of Wiawaka.
Later during that same year, some 260 bateaux were reportedly sunk in Lake George to seal them under winter ice and prevent their capture or destruction by French forces. The Sunken Fleet of 1758 includes seven of those warships purposely sunk in Lake George.
An eighth bateau lies with the fleet of seven. It is a replica built by local teachers and school children. Sunk in Lake George in 1997, the 23 foot replica was being used to, 1) test Colonial sinking techniques; 2) to study the deterioration process of a wooden vessel in a freshwater environment; and 3) to enhance the preserve visit for drivers.
Sometimes referred to as the Wiawaka Bateaux Cluster, the seven 1758 bateaux are 25 to 36 feet long and 4 to 5 feet wide. Archaeological research by Bateaux Below, Inc. has documented design features and construction elements typical of mid-18th century bateaux.
The warships lie roughly perpendicular to shore over a 450 foot long area, suggesting they were all scuttled at one time. Only the bottom planks, the lower parts of ribs, some cleats, and garboards remain. Large stones, apparently used to help sink them, can be seen resting on the bottom planks, and holes have been bored in some of the planks.
Additional historical research may reveal why these bateaux were not recovered. The seven historic bateaux were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. A blue-and-yellow metal historic marker about these shipwrecks has been erected on shore. The marker overlooks the southern-most bateau and is visible from the mooring buoy area.
The Sunken Fleet is located approximately one mile north of Lake George’s Million Dollar Beach on the east side of the lake, just off Wiawaka’s shoreline.
The motor launch Forward was constructed about 1906. It is reported to have been one of the earliest gasoline-powered vessels on Lake George. The Forward was owned by the estate of William Bixby of Mohican Point in Bolton Landing. Harold Bixby, William’s brother, was a chief backer of Charles A. Lindbergh’s solo trans-Atlantic flight in 1927. Reportedly, Harold Bixby named the plane Lindbergh flew The Spirit of St. Louis.
The Forward was ideally suited for Lake George; its chief function was to transport people on pleasure excursions around the lake. In later years, it is reported that the boat was used by two local tour boat entrepreneurs – Alden Shaw and Leonard Irish – as a commercial tour boat.
The “Forward” site is an underwater classroom, with signage for divers to learn about the ecology of the lake.
Anecdotal evidence indicates that the Forward was sunk in the 1930s east of Diamond Island. The circumstances and reason for its sinking are not known.
Forward is a wooden boat, 45 feet long, just under 8 feet wide, and just over 4 feet high. It has an open cockpit that was often covered with a canopy when it was in use. The boat lies upright in the water on a soft sediment slope. Her bow lies in deeper water. Two gasoline engines are visible amidships.
Little more is known about the boat, but it does provide us with a glimpse of an earlier, perhaps more grandiose time in the history of Lake George. Between 1997 and 1998, this preserve underwent a transformation into the Forward Underwater Classroom. A map is available for drivers, and the spot has underwater signage to direct divers to several stations. Stations include vegetation and geology signage, a zebra mussel monitoring station, a fish observation zone, a simulated underwater archaeology site, a secchi disk for divers to measure water transparency, a navigation course and thermometers, as well as slates and pencils to record water temperature patterns.
The Forward Underwater Classroom is located approximately 1, 500 feet east of Diamond Island in the South Basis of the lake. The enhancement of this site is to increase divers’ awareness of Lake George’s underwater world and promote stewardship of the lake’s finite resources.
The information for this article, including drawings, was taken from “A Diver’s Guide to Lake George.” The underwater sites are overseen by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. It was condensed by Stan Cianfarano, Warren County Historian, for the Warren County Historical Society.