Whitesel, J.R. and Joseph W. Zarzynski
2005 The Lost Radeau: North America's Oldest Intact Warship. : Pepe Productions /Bateaux Below, Inc. Documentary.
Notes: DVD, color, 57 minutes
Reviewed 17 Dec 2013 by:
Christina Rieth <Crieth@mail.nysed.gov)>
New York State Museum, Division of Research and Collections, Cultural Education Center
Medium: Film/Video Subject
Lost for over two centuries, the 1758 Land Tortoise radeau shipwreck lay hidden and undisturbed in the dark depths of a cold mountain lake in present day New York state. Then 232 years later, the floating gun battery was found by curious explorers using state-of-the-art side scan sonar. Intact and lying in 107 feet of water in Lake George, New York, the one-of-a-kind British and provincial warship is a well preserved icon of the French and Indian War. Without funding to support their work, find out how sport divers and underwater archaeologists joined together to complete an archaeological study of the unique warship and help develop management strategies to preserve and protect The Lost Radeau shipwreck.
ABSTRACT: This film, which was produced in 2005 by Pepe Productions, documenting the discovery of the Land Tortoise, a French and Indian War vessel that was scuttled at the south end of Lake George, Warren County, New York. The Land Tortoise is a seven-sided Radeau or floating military warship constructed in 1758 by Captain Samuel Cobb to aid the British in the capture of the French Fort Ticonderoga and Fort St. Frederic. Information about the construction of the vessel is provided along with information about how and why the vessel was scuttled. Finally, the film takes the viewer through the stewardship of the vessel and the challenges of caring for the vessel.
During the French and Indian War (1755-1763), both the British and French sought to control access to the waterways of upstate New York. Lakes, and waterways were important since they provided access to interior parts of New York and New England. In their efforts to win control of the region, the British built a large fort at the south end of the lake, naming it Fort William Henry, while the French built a sizeable structure at the north end of the lake at Fort Ticonderoga. A second fort was also built by the French at the south end of Lake Champlain near Crown Point (Fort St. Frederic) to secure their holdings in the region.
In addition to these forts, the British constructed a large water fleet to sail the lake. At the head of the fleet was the Land Tortoise, a seven-sided Radeau constructed by the British and the only remaining example of this type of warship in existence. The Land Tortoise was built by Captain Samuel Cobb and served as a floating gun battery to move large gun artillery toward French lines from the water. The earliest descriptions of the radeau and its construction are contained in the papers of Sir William Johnson. These descriptions indicate that the “sides should be high enough for a breast work to cover the men with portholes and holes cut for ores on the sides. Field pieces may also be mounted on the vessel.” Historical records of the vessels construction indicate that it was 52 feet long and 18 feet wide.
The Land Tortoise was constructed in about a month by general carpenters and was the flag ship of the Sunken Fleet of 1758. The Sunken Fleet of 1758 consists of a group of bateau, radeau, and other vessels that were intentionally sank by loading them with rocks to prevent the vessels from being captured by the French during the winter. During the spring of 1758, Captain Jeffrey Amherst attempted to locate and raise the vessels so that they could be used in attacks against the French. Despite locating many of the bateau, Amherst was unable to locate the Land Tortoise, requiring work to begin immediately on a new Radeau named the Invincible. For the next two hundred years, the Land Tortoise lay at the bottom of Lake George, its whereabouts unknown.
Underwater archaeologists began exploring Lake George to locate missing shipwrecks related to the French and Indian War in 1963. One of the earliest surveys was conducted by the Adirondack Museum as part of its Operation Bateau Research. The goal of this project was to locate and survey several missing bateau that were scuttled as part of the Sunken Fleet. Unlike the larger radeau, the bateau used on Lake George were approximately thirty feet long and were used to move men and supplies around the lake. This early work utilized a newly developed technique known as side-scan sonar. Side-scan sonar allows researchers to record objects on the bottom of the lake and assess their association with nearby debris fields which may provide clues as to why a wreck ended up where it was, whether it was disturbed after being deposited on the bottom of the lake, as well as assess changes in the wreck over time. Over the next twenty-five years, Operation Bateau (later known as Bateau Below) would identify and document hundreds of wrecks on the bottom of Lake George. Included among these wrecks was the Land Tortoise, which was found using side-scan sonar on June 26, 1990.
An underwater survey of the wreck was completed using a combination of professional archaeologists and sport divers between 1991 and 1993. The use of a combination of professional archaeologists and sport divers was unique and one of the first attempts at using disparate groups in order to insure the long-term preservation of the resource. The film addresses many of the challenges faced as a result of engaging these different groups, including the varied skill levels of the different participants as well as the depth of the resource and the need to insure that divers were certified to dive in these deep waters.
The vessel was documented through extensive measurements of the interior and exterior as well as photographs. Given the depth of the wreck, divers were limited by the amount of time that they could spend underwater working on these tasks. To aid in the documentation of the wreck, an ROV was used to help record the vessel. The use of the ROV allowed for more substantial documentation that would not have been possible using only divers. Documentation of the vessel was not limited to the shape and dimensions of the vessel but also included documentation of the placement of the stones used to weigh down the vessel. Placement of the stones was important and would provide clues as to whether the vessel had been moved and later scuttled by the French or whether it was deposited in its current location by the British.
Investigation of the wreck indicates that it contained seven gun ports with four of these located on the starboard side and three located on the port side. Each gun port would have had a wooden cover that could be opened and closed as needed. On the interior of the vessel were sixteen braces that framed the vessel while a central sail may have also powered the vessel. Along both sides of the vessel were thirteen openings for the oars. The bow of the vessel contained two view holes with one being square and one being round. Saw marks are visible around the two view holes and provide information about the techniques used in the construction of the Land Tortoise.
As a military vessel, the Land Tortoise was an ideal fighting vessel, since its shape and form would have allowed it to move around the lake. The vessel could be brought to the water’s edge so that the vessel could fire at close range against an enemy fort. Similar vessels used during the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War were used for a similar purpose and highlight the importance of these types of vessels in protecting New York’s waterways.
Rather than raising the vessel, the Land Tortoise was left in place and is currently part of an underwater park located at the south end of Lake George. The preservation of the vessel in situ is consistent with the Abandoned Shipwreck Act that places importance on engaging the public as part of long-term stewardship. For those who are unable to dive to the wreck, interpretive signage and displays throughout the Village of Lake George have been constructed. Artifacts, including several wooden covers from gunports, have been recovered and were conserved before being curated at the New York State Museum in Albany.
The Land Tortoise was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995. Three years later in 1998, the wreck became a National Historic Landmark due to its national importance. The Land Tortoise is only the sixth shipwreck to be listed as a National Historic Landmark.
The continued use of side-scan sonar will allow managers to record changes in the wreck and take remedial action to insure its preservation. Environmental threats like the appearance of zebra mussels in the lake will need to be monitored as well. Impacts caused by general apathy by the public (including impacts from dragging of boat anchors) could also affect the preservation of the Land Tortoise in the future.
The film is 57 minutes in length and contains interviews with government officials, divers, local historians and historic researchers as well as a mixture of underwater footage, photographs, and drawings of the Land Tortoise. The film demonstrates the complexities involved in locating such wrecks, their preservation, the history of underwater research in the region, and the need to engage the public in their preservation under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. As one of the earliest examples of this type of work, the project has served as a model for similar projects throughout the Northeast. With its background to the French and Indian War as well as its summary of historic preservation in the region, the film is appropriate for both professional and lay audiences.