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Archaeologists surveying Lake Erie floor for shipwrecks

Project underway with an eye toward protection and tourism

Monday, June 16, 2003

By Byron Spice, Post-Gazette Science Editor

ERIE -- The sea grass was growing thick and long last week when a trio of divers visited the wreck of the Canobie, a 260-foot wooden steamer scuttled in 1921 about three miles east of Presque Isle Bay.

Linda Huston jumps into Lake Erie to check the wreck of the Canobie last week. Huston owns Diver's World, which is among the participants in the survey project. (Keith Srakocic, Associated Press)


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The long, green strands, undulating in the Lake Erie current, gave the old girl an unusual appearance. Her 12-foot-diameter propeller, for instance, seemed downright hairy when diver Scott Say captured it in the frame of his video camera.

"It looks like a big Sesame Street character," said Say's boss, Eric Gurrein of Lakeshore Towing, who was watching the image on a television monitor aboard the dive boat Wolverine.

Aside from some excess seaweed, however, Canobie's oak timbers, wooden prop and huge boiler are familiar sights to Erie divers. Sitting upright on the sandy bottom in just 15 feet of water, the Canobie is easily accessible, even for snorkelers. Her boiler is so close to the surface that it can be a hazard to boats.

But most wrecks in Lake Erie -- and estimates suggest thousands lie beneath its surface -- remain unknown, uncharted and unexplored.

A new project underway in Pennsylvania's portion of the lake is beginning to change that. For the first time, archaeologists are surveying the lake floor to map the location of shipwrecks, identify significant sites that merit further study or excavation and to attach buoy markers to make it easier for divers to visit without damaging the wrecks.

The project, which includes educational, governmental and private participants, is intended to provide new information about the history and culture of the lake and give educational opportunities to area children and archaeology students, while also identifying new sites for recreational diving.

"It would be nice to find some new ones," said Linda Huston, a diving instructor and owner of Diver's World, one of the project participants. "We've been diving on the same old ones for some years now," she added, noting her dive on the Canobie last week was at least her 20th visit.

The project was spearheaded by James Zurn, a trustee of Erie's Mercyhurst College, and his friend, Edward Boshell Jr., a board member of the Institute for Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University.

Students at the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute will work this summer with James Coombs, a graduate student from Texas A&M, to survey about 20 square miles of Pennsylvania's 400-square-mile portion of the lake during the first year of the project. They will be using a side-scan sonar to help identify wrecks before diving and evaluating the sites close up.

James Adovasio, director of the Mercyhurst institute, said bad weather has hampered the first few weeks of the project. But the glitches are getting worked out and the students are getting a feel for the most productive areas.

The lake is reputed to have more wrecks per square mile than any other body of freshwater, so it remains to be seen exactly what might be found. But the researchers already have a pretty good idea of what the bulk of the wrecks will be.

After the ore carrier the Edmund Fitzgerald sank during a storm on Lake Superior in 1975 -- carrying 29 men to their graves -- singer Gordon Lightfoot wrote a popular ballad about it. But little romance was involved in most of the wrecks in Lake Erie.

These were generally creaky old freighters such as the Canobie, fish tugs such as the Neal H. Dow that was abandoned in 1910 in Misery Bay, or the Elderado, a steamer-cum-barge that was grounded four miles east of Erie during a storm in 1880.

"There was an incredible amount of traffic here," Adovasio said. Because of Erie's geographical isolation from the rest of Pennsylvania, lake shipping was critical to its early development.

"The vast bulk of everything that moved here moved by water," he said. Modest though many of those wrecks might be, they are part of the history and cultural legacy of the area.

In addition, "there's probably Native American wrecks, particularly here in the bay," Adovasio said, looking out over Presque Isle Bay.

The commonwealth sponsored a limited maritime survey in the early 1980s, said Kurt Carr, division chief for archaeology and protection at the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, "but we haven't done much with it in the past 15 years."

Though the state has thousands of recorded Native American sites and numerous historical buildings, only about 20 underwater archaeological sites have been recorded in the entire state, he noted.

Identifying the underwater sites is important, not only for immediate study, but for preserving sites that might be in the path of dredging or underwater construction projects, Carr said.

"To protect them we need to know where they are," he added.

Underwater archaeology sites might also be attractive for "heritage tourism," Carr said. While most Native American archaeology sites are in the middle of cornfields and just about as exciting, underwater wrecks often attract enthusiastic onlookers.

Michigan has developed a number of underwater archaeology sites, complete with underwater signage, that have proven popular with divers, he noted.

Jim Stewart, executive director of the Bayfront Center for Maritime Studies, said increasing access to the wrecks will be useful in educational activities his five-year-old center develops for school children.

The Bayfront center helped secure a $33,500 grant for the project from the state Department of Environmental Protection and coordinated nearly $60,000 in matching funds and in-kind contributions.

Wrecks such as the Canobie are being marked with buoys, which also serve as moorings. Divers thus will be able to find the wrecks more easily and will not need to drop an anchor, which could inadvertently damage the sites.

Increasing access to the wrecks, Stewart suggested, may also help protect them.

"The more people are on the wrecks, the less pilfering will go on," he explained.


Byron Spice can be reached at bspice@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.

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