Early Underwater Explorers of Lake George in the 1930s
Years before Frenchmen Jacques Cousteau and Emile Gagnon developed SCUBA in 1943 and Mike Nelson (Lloyd Bridges) thrilled audiences in the television series, “Sea Hunt” (1958-1961), a small group of young men in the 1930s dived Lake George in a homemade diving apparatus.
Commercial hardhat diving had been done at the lake in 1897 during the salvage of the steamboat Helen, in the 1923 recovery of a sunken auto that had rolled off an excursion vessel near Hague, and during several other underwater projects at the lake. However, it was not until the 1930s that adventurers began to “push the envelop” to build a diving mechanism to reconnoiter the depths of “The Queen of American Lakes.” Their subsurface forays may have been fueled by a couple of things.
First, William Beebe (1877-1962), a Brooklyn-born natural history scientist who worked for the New York Zoological Park (Bronx Zoo), excited Americans about underwater discovery. In 1925, Beebe began helmet diving and a few years later wrote an article on his work in the National Geographic Magazine (“A Wonderer Under Sea,” December 1932).Beebe’s exploits culminated with deepwater expeditions in a bathysphere off Bermuda that inspired worldwide interest in exploring “inner space.”
Furthermore, during that time, Modern Mechanics magazine’s January 1932 issue gave its readers a primer on how to construct a workable diving device in the article—“Build A Diving Helmet from a Water Heater.”
One young man who worked with area friends to fashion a variation of this plan was Harry K. Summerhayes, a Schenectady resident. His parents also owned a cottage on Crown Island, Town of Bolton. His do-it-yourself diving helmet reportedly included a telephone for diver-to-surface communication. Summerhayes and three or four friends made occasional dives down to about 40 feet, retrieving jewelry and other lost items from the waterway.
A Schenectady Gazette article stated, “Summerhayes is the only man in this vicinity to have taken to such adventure and business.”
On February 1, 1933, Richard Garrett, a senior at Glens Falls High School, told an assembly of fellow Glens Falls students about his Lake George dives undertaken the previous summer. Garrett was part of the team that executed underwater descents using a former five-gallon oil can that was weighted down with two glass windows installed as viewports. Air was forced down a hose with a bicycle pump. The diver carried extra weight in his hands to keep him down. One day, the group’s objective was to find and recover an outboard motor lost off a dock. Garrett told the student and faculty audience that the trailblazers did not find the sunken engine, but did locate another lost outboard motor in 34 feet of water.
It was no coincidence that Garrett presented his assembly program to classmates that wintery day in 1933. A few days later, in the same Glens Falls school auditorium, Dr. William Beebe, the acclaimed oceanographer, gave a public lecture about his groundbreaking voyages into the oceanic depths.
Caption/Credit (Modern_Mechanics_Jan._1932_Diving_Helmet): The first page of the January 1932 article from Modern Mechanics magazine that may have helped inspire young adventurers to explore the depths of Lake George in the 1930s (credit: Modern Mechanics).