History, folklore, or rumor?

This is an examination on stories, assumptions, and filling in the blanks, which changed as I was writing it.

I grew up on the northern tip of Cayuga Lake, one of the Finger Lakes of central New York, and right down where my street ended at the lake’s edge sits an historical marker telling of a former bridge across the lake from colonial times. Standing there and looking out over the water, this seems an impressive feat since the bridge would have stretched almost exactly a mile (1.6 kilometers,) no small task before the industrial revolution. Looking at it from an aerial view, it’s easy to see the two roads that the bridge joined: West Genesee Street on the east side, and East Bayard Street on the west. You can see this yourself; just click here to get the placemark in Google Earth, or enter “42.918570 -76.729523” in Google Maps, Bing, or whatever online mapping service you prefer – this will put you right where the historical marker sits (within spitting distance, anyway.)

Make sure you’re in satellite/aerial view, zoom out to see the width of the lake, and you’ll probably see something else: a sporadically dotted line in the lake stretching between the two roads (this has different visibility depending on which method you use, but it shows remarkably well in Bing, and in Google Earth you can change the dates of the imagery to see different versions.) I initially took these to be pits in the lake bottom from the bridge supports, since darker generally means deeper, but Bing is detailed enough to show warning buoys alongside, so now I believe they’re the actual remnants of the pilings, shallow enough to pose a hazard to larger boats. The north end of the lake is shallow anyway, running less than two meters in places, so only recreational boats run outside the marked channels.

Now for the part I’m still researching. There are stories that, during the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783,) troops moving a large cannon across the bridge lost control of it and watched it go off the edge, and there it remains, too damn heavy to raise. Silt and water weed growth serve to obscure it at most times. I have heard that people thought of raising it, but it would be expensive and the cannon would automatically become property of the state as an historical object. Basically, the state wasn’t going to pay and no one else was tempted to, in effect, donate the effort and expense.

Recently, I started trying to find out more about this, since the last time I tried was long before the interwebs. And things started to fall apart a bit.

First off, the bridge wasn’t completed until 1800, which meant it never saw anything from the Revolutionary War, but the account might have referred instead to the War of 1812. Yet, while finding plenty of accounts regarding the bridge online, I can find nothing of the cannon – not a word.

So now we go back. The sole source of my knowledge of the cannon is… my dad. He worked with the local historical museum for a while, and I believed that this was his source, but couldn’t say for sure. Eventually I just called him. Turns out that most, if not all, of the information came from the director of the museum, since deceased, and near as can be determined, he received the information from a boater who had claimed to see the submerged cannon. I also recalled a story about a private pilot who had spotted it from the air, but my dad didn’t remember this bit.

Abruptly, my impression of this cannon went from local history/folklore to an unconfirmed account from a boater who may easily have been mistaken. Corroboration in any form is nonexistent, and there is no historical evidence that even hints at the event – where the details about the troops losing control of the cannon originated, I can do nothing but speculate. The director had expressed his intention to keep knowledge of the cannon quiet, lest it be raised or obtained by someone other than the museum, and may even have been influenced by early manifestations of the Alzheimer’s which colored his life only a few years later. I tried contacting the museum to see if anyone had any further information about it all, and received no reply.

This is the fun thing about folklore. While there is little reason to imagine someone made this up, what I grew up with as an established fact turned out to be nothing more than a vague story, narrowed down to only one source. Too often, the integrity of whomever relates such a story is considered important, sometimes the only thing that distinguishes it from a tall tale, but this is an aspect of human social interaction, an emotional reaction, and nothing that rationally promotes a story to the level of ‘evidence.’ Nor is there any useful way of producing more support for the story – about the best that I can come up with is some magnetic survey of the lake pegging a strong metallic deposit in the right location. The lake is a popular locale for fishing, swimming, and boating, so it seems likely someone else could have spotted it by now, but I’ve found no further accounts.

I had not only intended to do a serious article on the cannon, I had toyed with the idea of initiating more research, if not the actual raising of the artifact. Some people (‘journalists’ among them – yes, those are sneer-quotes) might be inclined to promote the vague story into something more substantial, some assumption that it was wholly accurate, but I’ve seen enough of that kind of bullshit and would rather encourage solid critical appraisal. One third-hand account isn’t enough to merit much more effort than this.

Now if it was a UFO, that’d be a different story … ;-)

2 comments to History, folklore, or rumor?

  • Martin Temple

    I have seen what appears to fit the physical description of that sunken cannon while flying over the North end. It has been a couple years, but as I remember it’s about 2/3 the way across from the Seneca Falls side to Cayuga and at a slight angle from parallel to the tracks. I was a student pilot at the time and used to fly out of Finger Lakes Regional Airport. I have looked since and not seen it so perhaps it is dependent on the time of year/water clarity, etc.

    What I saw was a rusty tan shape in a greenish water hue.

    Perhaps you could contact FLRA and have them post a message on the board.

    • Al Denelsbeck

      Ah, the plot thickens. The accounts I know of stem from at least twenty years ago, so yours is much more recent.

      I’m dropping you an e-mail directly asking for any more details that you can recall, and also going to contact Finger Lakes Regional Airport as you recommended. Of course, if you happen to be flying in the area again, I’d love you to keep an eye out, and pin down anything at all that can help locate this artifact more distinctly.

      Had you heard of the cannon (or any sunken artifact) before this post? I’m curious to know what accounts are out there.

      Thanks!