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Historic shipwreck in Lake George added to National Register

Tuesday, December 30, 2008
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The 45-foot-long Forward, an early gasoline-powered watercraft, is seen in an early photograph.
The 45-foot-long Forward, an early gasoline-powered watercraft, is seen in an early photograph.

— It took two decades to get the underwater wreck of one of the first gas-powered excursion boats on Lake George listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Joseph Zarzynski of Wilton said the wreck of the Forward, the 45-foot-long boat built in 1906 and propelled by two 30-horsepower engines, was discovered back in the 1970s by amateur scuba divers.

Bateaux Below Inc., a group of six underwater archaeologists and enthusiasts, started looking for the wreck and located it again in the 1980s near Diamond Island about four miles north of Lake George village.

Since 1993, the Forward has been a site in a state-administered underwater diving park developed by Bateaux Below Inc. which allows scuba divers to study the wreck in 40 feet of water.

The U.S. Department of the Interior announced this month that the Forward, a boat first owned by multimillionaire W.K. Bixby of Bolton Landing and St. Louis, Mo., has been included on the National Register.

The federal agency describes the Forward shipwreck as “a relatively rare and intact example of an early gasoline-powered launch associated with the golden years of Lake George as a summer resort.”

The Forward application for the National Register also had to be reviewed and recommended to the federal government by the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

Zarzynski, who was a member of the team that investigated the archaeological and historical significance of the Forward, said the listing of the launch on the National Register of Historic Places is “unique.”

He said the Forward listing is a “recognition that shipwrecks from the early 20th century meet the criteria for the National Register of Historic Places.”

“In the past, only 18th century and 19th century shipwrecks in Lake George have been designated to the National Register,” he said.

The Forward was built by the Gas Engine and Power Co. and Charles L. Seabury & Co., Consolidated of Morris Heights, N.Y. The boat yard later became Consolidated Shipbuilding, one of the country’s most famous shipbuilders during World War I and World War II. It closed in the 1950s.

Bixby, the boat’s first owner, was president of the American Car and Foundry Co. in St. Louis. Bixby’s son, Harold, was a financial patron of Charles Lindbergh’s famous 1927 trans-Atlantic flight to Paris in the Spirit of St. Louis.

The Bixby family used the Forward for a family wedding in 1906, according to William Gates’ book, “Lake George Boats and Steamboats.”

Zarzynski describes the Forward as a “stretch limo” with the driver in front and seats in the back. The boat could travel 22 knots at full-throttle and had a removable canopy.

After the Bixbys, the Forward became an excursion boat operated by Leonard Irish and Alden Shaw. The Forward is credited with saving eight of 11 passengers on the ill-fated “Miss Lake George” when that lake cruiser caught fire and sank in 1929.

Zarzynski said how the Forward found its way to the bottom of Lake George is not documented. Oral tradition includes a story that the boat had outlived its usefulness and was purposely sunk in 1930 about 1,500 feet east of Diamond Island.

The stern and the bow of the Forward are still well preserved but the middle of the launch is starting to decompose, Zarzynski said. The two engines are still with the boat.

The Forward is part of an underwater park called Submerged Heritage Preserves, the first shipwreck park for scuba divers in New York state. The underwater park is administered by the state Department of Environmental Conservation and includes seven Colonial bateaux known as the “Sunken Fleet of 1758” and the “Land Tortoise, A 1758 Floating Gun Battery.”

“The Forward is probably the most visited shipwreck,” Zarzynski said.

He said in the late 1990s the Forward preserve was enhanced through a grant to Bateaux Below Inc. from the Fund for Lake George.

The remodeled preserve now has a series of underwater informational stations about lake ecology and geology and is called the Forward Underwater Classroom.

 
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