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August 29, 2013

Divers plumb depths of Otsego Lake history

The computer monitor showed a video of the depths of Otsego Lake, and now Paul Lord pointed to the outline of an object with which he has become most familiar: The remnants of a gutted 24-foot runabout that had sunk to the bottom decades earlier.

The floor of Otsego Lake tells a story, and as a result of the same type of sonar technology used to discover the Titanic in the Atlantic Ocean, Lord and a team of volunteer divers are learning more day by day about the maritime history of the storied waterway.

Their biggest discovery so far is the forsaken carcass of the charred Leatherstocking, a wooden motorboat that belonged to W. T. Sampson Smith, who happened to be a U.S. House of Representatives candidate the summer of the calamity.

At a sailing event in 1940, after Smith’s wife and other occupants of the boat detected the odor of gasoline, it was being towed to shore when it caught fire. All aboard escaped uninjured before the Leatherstocking went to the bottom.

“Right here, you can see the big hole in the stern,” said Lord, pointing to the image on his screen. “It’s one of the few shipwrecks in the lake with a tale to tell.”

The Klein side-scan sonar survey of the lake was paid for by underwater archaeologist Joseph W. Zarzynski, who, like Lord, is a certified diver well-versed in finding ancient artifacts that are able to resist decay because of low water temperatures and minimal light.

Zarzynski, Lord and the team of volunteer divers working with them have detected numerous objects at the bottom of the lake, some of which have yet to be visited.

Zarzynski, a retired teacher from Saratoga County who is an expert on sunken military vessels from the French and Indian War, said he suspects Otsego Lake could be the grave of one or more bateau used by Gen. George Washington’s troops before and after skirmishes with Native Americans loyal to the British crown. Used for troop and cargo transport, the bateau were built in Schenectady and Albany in the 18th century.

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