There are thousands of shipwrecks in New York state waters, dating to the early days of the nation. A traveling exhibit highlighting their historical significance is currently on display at Plattsburgh City Hall.
More than 300 shipwrecks have been found in Lake Champlain, highlighting its seafaring history. There are several Underwater Historic Preserves maintained by the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum that highlight the military, commercial and private vessels that plied the waters.
There could be 10,000 shipwrecks in waters across New York. Great Shipwrecks of New York’s ‘Great’ Lakes Traveling Exhibit highlights more than 200 years of wrecks in Lake Champlain, Lake George, Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, the Finger Lakes and the St. Lawrence River. New York Sea Grant Recreation Specialist Dave White created the display in 2014. “The country was in essence in many cases founded through New York waterways. We can talk about the history of commercial shipping and its development. The development of our, you know, naval military expertise. The term we use, you know, Great Shipwrecks of New York’s ‘Great’ Lakes we include that word great to be all of our great lakes and rivers in upstate New York because it’s helped create whom we are here in upstate New York.”
The exhibit includes 10 interpretive panels, each of which highlights two wrecks from a major body of water. Lake Champlain Sea Grant Aquatic Resources Specialist Mark Malchoff was at the exhibit in City Hall. “If you just look at the range of our panels here there was military vessels and commercial vessels transiting all those waterways from the Great Lakes to the Finger Lakes to Lake Champlain. And where there were vessels there were shipwrecks. We’ve got examples from across the state in these educational panels and it tells a kind of an important story. It was a much different world back then. You know you think about New York without roads or even canals.”
Many wrecks are kept in the waters where they are found in underwater historic preserves. White explains the deep cold fresh water helps preserve them. “These wrecks today are as they went down one – two hundred years ago. You know in some cases with the mast still standing up, with the artifacts still on board because that fresh water has preserved them. If you go into salt water any wooden vessel in salt water has deteriorated, so the vessel itself in large scale no longer exists. So these, we can learn so much from these archaeologically by looking at them, how they were designed, what they were doing at the time, and that gives us these additional pieces of the history.”
While keeping the wrecks in place has been the best preservation option, Malchoff points to a picture on one panel showing how invasive species are threatening the wrecks. “Whether it’s wood or steel they can hasten the decay process and they can obliterate, you know you can look at the ship’s wheel in this panel. If that photo had been taken 20 years before you’d be able to see a lot more detail. Now every part of that wreck is covered with zebra mussels.”
White is enthusiastic that one floor below the exhibit, the anchor of the HMS Confiance is on permanent display, highlighting Plattsburgh’s role in the War of 1812. The British flagship sank during the Battle of Plattsburgh, on September 11, 1814. “ What a great location for it to be in in City Hall where it’s very accessible. You have the anchor right downstairs with its own story of the deep history of Lake Champlain and its role in the military conflict. And then just walk right up the stairs and you can continue to learn and understand our maritime history.”
The Great Shipwrecks of New York exhibit can be viewed Monday through Friday at no charge in the Plattsburgh City Hall second floor atrium, adjacent to the auditorium, through April 28th.