Radeau Below: Lake George Holds Oldest Warship
Long and narrow Lake George, known as the Queen of American Lakes, sits at the base of the Adirondack Mountains within the upper region of the Great Appalachian Valley. It drains northward into Lake Champlain and the St. Lawrence River basin. Although Quebec and the Ohio River Valley were primary battlegrounds, so were Lakes Champlain, George and other waterways. It’s said that soldiers preferred the many battles on the water to trudging through roadless mountainous terrain.After a string of early French victories, the war turned in Britain’s favor in 1755 at the Battle of Lake George. Radeaux and bateaux brought supplies to the 1,500 troops and 200 Mohawk warriors that were defending their forts or attacking enemy installations on the shores of the lake. The French also had 1,500 troops, but couldn’t penetrate the English forts or match their tenacity in lakeside skirmishes.
The British and their colonial and Indian comrades lost a big battle in 1758 when they attacked Fort Carillon (later named Fort Ticonderoga) on Lake Champlain near the northern section of Lake George. In the battle, 4,000 French troops repelled 10,000 foes to maintain control over the Great Appalachian Valley. The British returned the following year and captured the under-manned fort, which allowed access to both Canada and the Hudson River Valley. This fort saw more action during the French and Indian War than any others. Thus Lakes George and Champlain became the strategic watery battleground for hundreds of bateaux and radeaux.Double the length of her counterpart the badeau, the 52-foot-long radeau had two masts, seven cannon ports and 26 oar holes. It could be sailed or rowed and tied up dockside by metal mooring rings. One of the radeau was aptly named Land Tortoise. The design of all these warships resembled turtles, covered over so as not to reveal anything on deck including the gun batteries.
In the winter of 1758, the English ships were intentionally sunk in shallow water in order to protect them from the enemy for the 1759 campaign. Most of the fleet was raised in the spring of 1759, except for the Land Tortoise which was never found nor mentioned in any war records. In 1990, the more than 200 year old mystery unraveled when archaeologists, using side scan sonar, discovered the wreck one and a half miles from shore in 105 feet of water. It’s believed the vessel slid, perhaps during a storm, from the shallows to the deep part of the lake.The wreck is well preserved in the oligotropic waters (fresh with low nutrients, little algae, oxygen enriched). Visibility averages 10 to 20 feet. Although the lake waters are clear, sunlight doesn’t penetrate well this deep. The masts are gone. There’s no rigging nor armaments. All of the equipment was to be replaced when the ship was pulled out of the water. For divers, there’s no penetration, but most are amazed at the well preserved hull which offers decent photographs taken at close range. The radeau, along with the other shipwrecks in the Lake George Preserve are protected by law. Anyone interested in obtaining a permit and a time slot to dive the wreck may obtain information online by going to: The Land Tortoise Underwater Preserve Site. Only experienced, certified divers are accepted. Today, the French and Indian War is glossed over in many history books. It’s not as popular as the Revolutionary or Civil Wars, so our children learn less about it despite its immense importance in securing our future as an English speaking nation.
Note: Two excellent books on the subject are: Lake George Shipwrecks & Sunken History by Joseph Zarzynski and Bob Benway; Diving the “Land Tortoise” Radeau, Lake George, New York—America’s Oldest Intact Warship.
Author: Ellsworth Boyd
Ellsworth Boyd, Professor Emeritus, College of Education, Towson University, Towson, Maryland, pursues an avocation of diving and writing. He has published articles and photo’s in every major dive magazine in the US., Canada, and half a dozen foreign countries. An authority on shipwrecks, Ellsworth has received thousands of letters and e-mails from divers throughout the world who responded to his Wreck Facts column in Sport Diver Magazine. When he’s not writing, or diving, Ellsworth appears as a featured speaker at maritime symposiums in Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, Ft. Lauderdale, New York and Philadelphia. “Romance & Mystery: Sunken Treasures of the Lost Galleons,” is one of his most popular talks. A pioneer in the sport, Ellsworth was inducted into the International Legends of Diving in 2013.