The Unfortunate Sunken Warship
One of the more unique historical events that happened at Lake George was the raising of a colonial shipwreck in 1903. The project captivated the public, but by today’s standards, the salvage of the French & Indian War (1755-1763) wreck was a preservation disaster.
Regional newspapers covered the warship’s recovery. Decades later, Russell P. Bellico wrote about it in his book, Sails and Steam in the Mountains—A Maritime and Military History of Lake George and Lake Champlain. The Hague summer resident summed it up: “Unfortunately, the vessel was dismantled for souvenirs.”
Recently, new information about the episode has been gleaned from old newspapers.
In 1903, entrepreneur William S. Tuttle funded the retrieval of a sunken British vessel from the lake’s south end, near Battlefield Park. For several years leading up to the recovery, Tuttle got annual state legislative permission for the salvage.
The Feb. 4, 1903 Buffalo Courier reported that Tuttle could “at his own expense” remove pre-1776 sunken military vessels from Lake George.
Tuttle chose a British sloop sunk by French and Canadian soldiers in the March 1757 raid on Fort William Henry since the shipwreck was visible from the surface in 20 ft. of water. Following setup work by a hardhat diver, in July 1903, the D & H Company’s locomotive 444 pulled the shipwreck to shore.
The Nov. 22, 1903 Brooklyn Standard Union reported the ship remains were 44 ft. long, 14 ft. wide, and 7 ft. deep. Its hull was white oak with black oak frames. The sloop was fastened with treenails and some metal nails. Inside the gunboat: a peck of musket balls, about 50 cannonballs, a 1743 Spanish coin, 2 pewter spoons, brass buckles, and a clasp knife. Reportedly in 1820, two small cannon were salvaged from the wreck.
As Dr. Bellico noted, the maritime relic was cut up into curios, not then an uncommon practice.
In 1919, newspapers reported that W.L. Adee, a Saratoga Springs resident, crafted a clock and two candlestick holders from wood off the shipwreck. The timepiece was built without nails and the candlesticks were black oak.
Artifact “repurposing” was not unusual for that time. James Fenimore Cooper, author of The Last of the Mohicans, a novel about the Aug. 1757 siege of Fort William Henry, once received a wooden box purportedly carved from a timber of Captain James Cook’s ship of discovery, the HMB Endeavour. From 1768-1771, the British collier explored Australia and New Zealand. Actually, Cooper’s box was fabricated from wood from another colonial ship abandoned in Newport, RI.
In the early 1990s, some frames from the Lake George sloop, each about 4 ft. long, were donated to the Lake George Historical Association. The Fort William Henry museum collection also has several similar hull timbers.
In 2008, John Lefner, a Cleverdale real estate agent and antique collector, purchased several fragments from a lake wreck. I identified them as probably from the 1903-raised sloop. Lefner acquired the wooden assemblage from an elderly local man.
Steve Resler, a diver with Bateaux Below, and I examined the nine piece acquisition. Lefner graciously donated the historic ship timbers to the NYS Museum.
Sadly, all three sets of lake shipwreck fragments show deterioration since none underwent professional conservation in 1903.
Though the public might prefer seeing shipwrecks pulled from the depths to become museum exhibits, such actions are costly and often do not result in longevity for the antiquities.
An example is the 1628 Swedish warship Vasa that sank off Stockholm. It was raised in 1961 and is Sweden’s biggest tourist attraction. Regrettably, it is slowly collapsing upon itself. This threatening implosion is in part due to a 17th century design flaw, an over weighted deck structure. Furthermore, 17 years of conservation using the preservation agent polyethylene glycol seems to be failing.
Lake George’s “unfortunate sunken warship” is a sad case of poor cultural resources management from one-hundred-and-ten years ago.