Saturday, July 02, 2005


Pulling the past from river mud


Times Union
By Matt Pacenza
June 30, 2005

Sonar, divers part of effort to save artifacts from Hudson before dredging begins.
FORT EDWARD -- Pot shards. A cannon. Bridge remains. And, most tantalizingly, shipwrecks.

The dredging of PCBs from the upper Hudson River won't just remove 2.65 million cubic yards of mud but will also unearth remnants of the vibrant history of the Fort Edward region, from prehistoric Native American settlements to the French and Indian War and beyond.

"We can honestly say that Fort Edward is one of the most archaeologically rich communities anywhere in the region, if not the country," said David Starbuck, an archaeologist who is advising local authorities. "It's not feasible to collect every artifact, but we have to be worried about Fort Edward losing much of its historical record."

In hopes they can rescue some of those artifacts before the big dig, due to start in 2007, an intensive archaeological survey is currently using high-tech scanning equipment to see what may lie on the river bottom and its banks.

Experts know there are a massive number of fragments of pottery, wood and glass. But they also hope to find a few unique items.

One spot they're focusing on is the southwest end of Rogers Island, in the middle of the river just west of the village of Fort Edward. The results of the first round of side scan sonar, which bounces sound waves off the river bottom, suggest two locations may hold shipwrecks.

A schooner? An 18th-century bateau?

Actually, say local historians, the submerged vessels are probably barges, made of that great floating material: concrete. A company on the southern tip of the island made concrete barges that were used to transport goods to Europe during World War I.

Documents lead local historians to believe that at least one barge might be underwater.

"We know that at least one sunk shortly after it was made," said Eileen Hannay, the manager of the Rogers Island Visitors Center, which has a collection of unearthed local artifacts. Hannay, Starbuck and other local historians make up a cultural resources committee that is advising the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the General Electric Co., the dredging project's designers.

Researchers won't know what's down there until they send a dive team, scheduled for late July.

"It could be something of grand archaeological significance," said Mark Behan, a GE spokesman. "Or it could be a shopping cart."

Other possible objects in the river include remnants of old bridges that spanned the river, ferry boats and docks, Native American canoes and military hardware.

The river bottom surrounding Rogers Island, nearly all of which will be dredged for PCBs, is a key spot for potential artifacts. Fort Edward itself, a critical British stronghold during the French and Indian War, was right across from the island. From 1755 to 1759, some 16,000 troops were stationed at the fort. For a short time, locals boast, Fort Edward was the third-largest city in the colonies, behind New York and Boston.

Thousands of troops moved across the river, from the island to the shore, making the area potentially rich in military refuse.

The east channel of the river around the island will likely yield fewer findings, because it was dredged early in the 19th century to create a deeper channel for boats to pass.

Some believe there may be a cannon from Fort Edward in the river. Rumor has it that a diver once spotted one, years ago. The experts doubt that, but they're keeping an open mind. One wild tale speaks of a cannon filled with gold beneath the river.

That debate should be settled when an engineering firm hired by GE examines the area with advanced magnetic equipment.

"If there is one there, they'll find it," said Hannay. "If there is one stuffed with gold, all the better. We don't expect that."

Buried somewhere beneath the river are plenty of Native American artifacts. The area near Fort Edward was once known as the Great Carrying Place, where Indians had to stop paddling upstream because of Hudson Falls, just to the north, to portage their goods to Lake George or Lake Champlain.

Rogers Island and Fort Edward have already had extensive digs. For 15 summers, Starbuck has led teams of students and volunteers to the area for an archaeology field school through Adirondack Community College.

The next step for the dredging project's designers is to pinpoint where the goodies might be. Right now, the engineering firm is doing additional scans along the river, using ground-penetrating radar and a proton magnetometer, which looks for magnetism in the soil. The machines detect not just artifacts, but also big rocks or metal objects that could disrupt dredging.

Next month, dive teams will examine spots where the potential for archaeological findings is high, like the shipwreck locations.

The key tools for the divers are their eyes and hands, said URS Corp. archaeologist Dan Cassedy. "You look, you feel," he said. "We'll also probe into the sediments with hand-held rods."

Some locations will likely be excavated, with prize findings brought to the surface, studied, and placed in a local museum like the Rogers Island Visitors Center.

The EPA and GE may also decide to leave certain areas that would have been dredged untouched.

Dredging will certainly destroy plenty of significant items. The question that the planners have to ask, said John Vetter, the EPA's national expert on archaeology and the National Historic Preservation Act, is how important those items are.

"What can it teach us?" asked Vetter. "It might teach us about the decorative arts, or the function of an object, or the nature of trade. Or it could be an item in a random place, washed down the river, that we might not be able to learn much from."

Area residents and local historians are determined to fight to save as much as possible.

"When you bring in the most massive Superfund site ever cleaned in the country, right in the middle of a critical historical site, it is something everyone should be concerned about," said Starbuck.


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