ERIE, Pa. — When they scuttled the 268-foot steamer Canobie in Lake Erie 80 years ago, everyone assumed that its useful life was over. They were wrong.
The Canobie and four other shipwrecks, in a 20-square-mile area, are the focus of a program by Mercyhurst College's Archaeological Institute and Erie's Bayfront Center for Maritime Studies to map and record the wrecks. By doing so, researchers want to draw attention to underwater preservation efforts, develop a history curricula, attract new divers and inventory items to prevent looting.
Twenty-five years ago, looting wasn't as much of a problem. Lake Erie, according to Mercyhurst scientists and James Stewart, Bayfront Center executive director, is the final resting place of more wrecks than any other freshwater location in the world.
Stewart says there are nearly 3,000 of them -- wooden package freighters, three-masted barkentines and schooners -- that became victims of the lake's fast-changing weather, shallow waters and once-crowded channels.
The problem was getting to them. Pollution had made the wrecks, most of which date from the 1800s and 1900s, hard to get to and difficult to see.
Lake Erie has been cleaned up considerably over the last two decades, in part because of the powerful filtering mechanism of the zebra mussel, and the actions of government regulators.
On a good day, the Canobie can be seen in 15 feet of water from a boat's deck, Stewart said.
"It's fabulous diving," he said.
Part of the problem with good diving, however, is the potential for looting. That is one reason for the research being done this summer by Mercyhurst and the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A & M University, said Kurt Carr, chief of the division of archeology and protection for the state Historical and Museum Commission.
By drawing recreational divers to the sites and perhaps creating a kind of underwater museum at some wrecks, scavengers could be thwarted. Smaller, more fragile items may be removed and placed in Erie's Maritime Museum.
"To protect them, we need to know where they are," Carr said, explaining that other stateshave similar successful programs.
The project's initial phase will last 12 months. Researchers hope to secure more funding that would expand the project beyond the initial 20-mile area.
Although some of the wrecks have been mapped before, Carr said little has been done with that information since the 1980s.
Paid for in part with a grant from the state Coastal Zone Management program, the effort will see researchers use sonar devices to map the area. Divers, including three Erie-area teenagers taking lessons, will then explore the wrecks, using underwater cameras to capture an image of what is below the surface.
"A shipwreck is an instant picture of culture, of industry," said Jim Zurn, a Mercyhurst trustee who approached the Institute of Nautical Archaeology about the project: "At the instant that ship went down, it entered a microcosm of society." The Institute of Nautical Archaeology, founded in 1972 as a nonprofit institute, has excavated some of the most significant underwater archeological sites in the world, including shipwrecks in the Mediterranean.