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Explorers Find Earliest Canal Boat Ever in Oswego River

A sonar image of the remains of an early 19th Century Erie Canal line boat in the Oswego River. The deck boards are plainly visible.  Kennard says he believes he can also see part of the tiller assembly in the back, what may be a stove towards the back of the ship, and a railing or hull towards the front of the ship. Jim Kennard photo.
A sonar image of the remains of an early 19th Century Erie Canal line boat in the Oswego River. The deck boards are plainly visible. Kennard says he believes he can also see part of the tiller assembly in the back, what may be a stove towards the back of the ship, and a railing or hull towards the front of the ship. Jim Kennard photo.

The Oswego River holds the answer to a small mystery: What did the earliest Erie Canal boats look like?

Veteran shipwreck explorers Jim Kennard and Roger Pawlowski this week announced that they’ve found and photographed a canal boat that likely dates to the earliest days of the statewide canal system.

Kennard said he was approached by the Oswego Maritime Foundation to scan the river.  “They said we’ve always been curious about the Oswego River and what’s in it,” he said.

Another image generated by sonar of the canal boat found in the Oswego River south of Fulton.  Jim Kennard says the boat appears to be sticking 6 to 8 inches out of the bottom of the river.  He hopes to verify that next year during a diving session.  Jim Kennard photo.
Another image generated by sonar of the canal boat found in the Oswego River south of Fulton. Jim Kennard says the boat appears to be sticking 6 to 8 inches out of the bottom of the river. He hopes to verify that next year during a diving session.

So, using a map of the river that noted the locations of various shipwrecks, they turned their sonar scanner on the river’s bottom during September and October.  The first surprise was that none of the wrecks on the map were actually there.  It’s possible the wrecks were removed not long after their accidents, he said, or the wreckage was hidden in weeds, where the sonar can’t see.

Then came the second surprise.  South of Fulton in the town of Granby — Kennard won’t say exactly where, in order to protect the wreckage — the explorers’ sonar saw something:  the skeletal outline of a canal boat.

The images show a boat that’s about 76 feet long.  The boat’s length is what marks it as a very early boat.  The locks in the original canal were only 90 feet long, so boats had to be shorter than that.  Improvements in the mid-1800s allowed canal boats to get much larger.

One of only a few sketches available showing a canal boat that's about the size of the boat found in the Oswego River.  Provided by Jim Kennard.
One of only a few sketches available showing a canal boat that's about the size of the boat found in the Oswego River. Provided by Jim Kennard.

Kennard said it is difficult to verify the age of such a boat because it existed in the time before photography.  Old photos would help to show the type of construction typically used at the time.  He found a couple of sketches of canal boats from the time.

“We all came to the conclusion that this was a very early, orignal Erie Canal Boat.  This is the oldest one that we’re aware of,” Kennard said.

Kennard and his partner tried to get a closer look.  They dove into the water, but the late summer’s heavy rains created enough turbulence to reduce visibility to near zero.  They hope to dive again early next year when the water would be clearer.

1 Comment

  1. How very exciting!!!Always a fan of the Erie Canal history, this just adds such a bonus to the subject! I realize you probably can’t exhume the wreckage, but maybe a little bit of gentle archeological digging will expose more in the future. Not since the Ontario, have we had such excitement.

    THANK you Kennard and Pawlowski for your good work!

    Debbie Engelke
    Time & Again Books (200 feet from the Oswego Canal!)

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