Shipwrecks: Sailing Canal Boat (Wreck WWW)

In August 2001 a team of LCMM archaeologists relocated and completed preliminary documentation of a wreck near Plattsburgh, New York. Initially located in 1970, its discovery and potential historical significance temporarily piqued the interest of many individuals and organizations, both locally and nationally. On August 25, 1970 the Press Republican, Plattsburgh’s daily newspaper, reported that “Lake Champlain was up to her old tricks again, yielding up another historic find.” The finder of the wreck, Ronald Dahly, happened upon it while skin diving in shallow water near Plattsburgh. Dahly examined the flat-bottomed craft, and recovered a number of artifacts including several iron implements, such as nails, hooks, chain, and blocks. He reported his find to the Clinton County Historical Association and the Plattsburgh Chamber of Commerce with the hope that the vessel and its artifacts could be recovered for display. On August 27, David Mize accompanied Mr. Dahly during a dive on the vessel and measured the remains. From this documentation a report on the wreck, Report on Shipwreck Discovery Off Inn of the Nations, was produced.

Photograph of Ronald Dahly, Robert Petzinger, and Gary Brandstetter displaying a variety of artifacts raised from Wreck WWW in August 1970. (Originally published in William Lanoue, “Smithsonian, Others Seek Boat”, Press Republican, 28 August 1970.)

The finders of the wreck initially speculated that it might be a “cargo ship of the War of 1812 vintage,” and later that it could be a “three-masted schooner-type.” These descriptions of the newly found vessel were circulated to both the Smithsonian Institution and the National Geographic Society, and both organizations apparently expressed interest in the shipwreck. The New York State officials quickly declared the location of the high-profile find confidential until the proper permits could be acquired. The Clinton County Historical Association indicated that it would file an application with the New York State Department of Education for an archaeological permit. The fear of unlawful looting of the site must have been significant, as “the site of the sunken ship is under 24-hour surveillance by members of the Wreck Raiders who have been assisting in the work of exploring the craft.”

Enthusiasm for raising the vessel seems to have subsided almost as quickly as it formed. The belief that it might be a War of 1812 wreck was squelched by the discovery of a Canadian coin dating to 1837. In September a committee was formed to investigate the significance of the wreck and the feasibility of raising it. In October, after three committee members had dived on the vessel, they concluded that it was not worth salvaging. In the opinion of the committee, the vessel was “in the class of other boats that had been disposed of in the lake.” The vessel was said to have some value as a local curiosity, but there was not enough left to warrant spending money to raise it.

Thus, the brief fame of the shipwreck seems to have faded quickly. Based on the accounts of local divers, the wreck’s location was fairly well known, and over the years a number of artifacts were collected from the wreck. In 2001 LCMM researchers, as part of the Lake Survey project, examined the wreck site. During one day of diving the structural remains were photographed and preliminary recorded.

Plan drawing of Wreck WWW. Drawn by Adam Kane.

The examination revealed the vessel to be an early sailing canal boat. The extant remains of the vessel are 75ft 3in (22.9m) long and 12ft 3in (3.7m) in beam. The remains consist largely of just the bottom of the hull. Based on the dimensions of the wreck the vessel was built sometime between 1823, the date of the Champlain Canal’s opening, and the 1858 enlargement of the canal locks. The Canadian coin, which was a token issued by the Bank of Montreal during the Canadian rebellion and panic of 1837, indicates that the vessel was deposited on the lake bed sometime after 1837.

The Museum’s one-day documentation was greatly aided by the site conditions. Unlike the silty bottom conditions of many of Lake Champlain’s other shipwrecks, this vessel lies on a sandy bottom. These bottom conditions made it difficult to stir up bottom sediments, which reduce underwater visibility. Heavy sand particles tend to settle out of the water column quickly, making underwater work much more efficient. Furthermore, the shallow nature of the site allowed for nearly unlimited bottom times. The conditions of this shipwreck would make it an ideal candidate for a thorough study via an underwater archaeology field school.

The wreck has many features common to other documented sailing canal boats, but there are other previously undocumented construction aspects. The extant hull components include: chine logs, floors, standing knees, futtocks, futtock and floor wedges, planking, sternpost, stem, cant frames, centerboard trunk, and ceiling. The canal boat was built using the plank-on-frame method. The framing pattern is simple and efficient. The flat floors are consistently spaced at 2ft (.6m) intervals on centers, with room-and-space averaging 1ft 6in (.5m). The outboard end of each floor is mortised into the chine log and held in place with a wedge. At the outboard end of each floor there is a corresponding standing knee attaching the floor to the side of the hull. On the upper face of the chine log in between the floors there are mortises for the vertically oriented futtocks. Only the bases of a few of the futtocks survive, held in place with a wedge. This framing pattern was very similar to that observed on Wreck TTT.

The hull’s central feature was the base of the centerboard trunk, the watertight box inside the hull used for housing the centerboard. The centerboard opening was 14ft 4in (4.4m) long and 7in (17.8cm) wide. The total length and width of the trunk was 16ft 9in (5.1m) and 1ft 4in (.4m), respectively. At each end of the trunk there is a mortise for a stanchion which formed the end of the trunk. None of the planking that made up the sides of trunk survived. The trunk construction is similar to that observed on Wreck PP, the Snake Den Harbor wreck and Wreck TTT.

The keelson runs the length of the hull with the exception of the area where the centerboard trunk is located. Most of the keelson was sided 8in (20.3cm), although just forward of the trunk it was 1ft 4in (40.6cm) sided. Two “S” scarfs are apparent on the keelson, one in the bow and one just aft of the trunk. Researchers did not excavate into the sediments and were thus unable to determine a moulded dimension for the keelson.

Diver documenting Wreck WWW. Photo by Pierre LaRocque.

The disposition of the vessel’s ceiling is one of the Wreck WWW’s most perplexing features. In the bow there is evidence that the ceiling is still extant on both the port and starboard sides. However, from the trunk aft there only appears to be one small section of ceiling. This small section is 3ft (.91m) wide and 6ft (1.8m) long. The dearth of ceiling in the hull is unusual given that this vessel would have carried much of its cargo in the hold. It seems unlikely that the ceiling was removed from the entire hull during the decay of the hull. Moreover, the purposefully cut ends of the small section of ceiling just aft of the trunk indicates that it was intentionally placed in an area that otherwise did not have any ceiling.

The vessel’s stern is poorly preserved. The planking at the stern tapers upward towards the no longer extant transom. The bottom of the sternpost is still present, lying just off the starboard side of the wreck. The disarticulated state of the sternpost gave researchers a rare opportunity to examine the exact means by which the sternpost is joined to the keel. The base of the sternpost had a tenon which was 10in (25.4cm) wide, 5in (12.7cm) deep, and 1¼in (3.2cm) thick. The tenon is fitted into a mortise in the aftermost portion of the keel. The junction is then held in place with a “U” shaped iron strap bent around the base of the sternpost and the bottom of the keel. The strap is secured with two through bolts, one through the sternpost, and one through the keel and sternpost tenon.

A wrought-iron pintle for attaching the rudder to the sternpost is still attached to the sternpost. A pintle is typically a vertical pin on the forward end of the rudder, which fits into the gudgeon mounted on the sternpost. The gudgeon/pintle arrangement allowed the rudder to swing freely on the sternpost. The pintle is normally constructed of two iron bands, one on each side of the rudder. At the forward face of the rudder the bands meet and form a downward facing pin, which fits into the gudgeon. The pintle discovered next to Wreck WWW differs from a typical pintle: it consists of a flat iron bar with a pin. The pintle is mounted on the bottom of the keel with the pin facing upward. The corresponding gudgeon is mounted on the rudder. An arrangement similar to this was also recorded on General Butler.

The bow is not well preserved. The bottoms of several cant frames remain in the bow; however, most had deteriorated. Rows of fastener holes were observed in areas that formerly had cant frames. Only the very bottom of the stem remained.

There is some evidence that the vessel was repaired during its lifetime. On the port side of the hull the floors are braced with additional futtocks. The reason for the placement of these additional structural features is unclear; however, they are only extant on the port side and in one area of the hull.

All of the evidence from this wreck indicates that it was an early sailing canal boat. Several vessels of this class have been studied: The North Beach Wreck, the Isle LaMotte Sloop, the Snake Den Harbor Wreck, and Wreck UUU.

There is little archaeological evidence to suggest how Wreck WWW ended up in the shallow waters near Plattsburgh. It seems likely that the vessel was left there at the end of its working life. There was no apparent cargo in the hull. It also seems likely that if the vessel had sunk unintentionally in such a shallow location it could have been raised and repaired. The presence of so many artifacts in 1970, however, was contradictory to this theory. The photograph, originally published in the Press Republican, shows the finders of the vessel with many recovered artifacts. Just based on this photograph the artifacts include blocks, deadeyes, casks, a caulking iron, an iron tie rod, fasteners, and hooks with thimbles. Many of these items would have been removed prior to the scuttling of a vessel.

Information Source: 
Adam I. Kane, Christopher R. Sabick and Sara R. Brigadier, Lake Champlain Underwater Cultural Resources Survey, Volume VI: 2001 Results and Volume VII: 2002 Results. Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, 2003.