By Stephen T. Watson - Buffalo News
In October, a team of shipwreck hunters found a submerged canalboat that possibly dates from the 1830s, making it the oldest boat of its kind found in the Erie Canal system.
The boat, buried in the murky Oswego River, has kept its secrets for more than 150 years, but canal history buffs are now hoping to uncover valuable information.
"I'm so excited by this find," said Daniel Franklin Ward, curator of the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse.
"There really aren't any canalboats from that period that survived, so finding one underwater is about the only way we'll be able to experience one."
For Erie Canal enthusiasts on this end of the state, the discovery may provide new details for planned replicas and further fuel efforts to build a Buffalo museum to honor the canal's key role in this region's early growth.
Those advocates are optimistic about a recent shift in focus for development of the inner harbor, but they say Buffalo lags behind Syracuse, Rome and Lockport in honoring its canal heritage.
"We are really the destination of the Erie Canal, and we ought to own it as a cultural entity. And we have done nothing but bury it at our end," said John S. Montague, co-founder of the Buffalo Maritime Center.
Jim Kennard has spent years searching for boats buried in the Erie Canal system, the Finger Lakes and elsewhere.
Two years ago, the Fairport resident and his team found a 1780 schooner, the HMS Ontario, in Lake Ontario that was believed to be the oldest shipwreck discovered in the Great Lakes.
This fall, Kennard was on the Oswego River, which connects Lake Ontario to the Erie Canal, because the Oswego Maritime Museum asked him to conduct a survey.
He and partner Roger Pawlowski went out three times in October in their boat, slowly sweeping the riverbed with a high-resolution sonar scanner.
"It's very similar to the ultrasound that doctors use to see your heart function or a baby in a woman's womb, but on a much bigger scale," Kennard said.
Kennard said he has found about 200 boats in his time, so he knew what they had as soon as he saw the sonar image.
"We weren't expecting to see this boat there. All of a sudden, it shows up, and we go, 'Whoa, we've got something here,'" Kennard said.
Pawlowski dove into the river on one visit in hope of getting photos of the boat, but the rain-swollen waters were too dark with silt for him to see anything or take pictures.
Sonar images do show the outline of a boat, with some lower-deck cqcrosshatching and what appears to be a stove.
The boat was found at a point between Fulton and Onondaga Lake, but Kennard declined to be more specific in the interest of protecting the site.
Less than a foot of the boat's structure sticks out from the floor of the river, but the length offers a hint at its age.