America's Oldest Intact Warship, The Land Tortoise, Is 256 Years Old

(Photo: Dr. Russ Bellico/Bateaux Below)

That headline requires a bit of unpacking. If you do some math, you'll find that that number gives us an origin of 1758, which is 18 years before the United States came into existence. Also, it's been underwater at the bottom of a lake for those 256 years.

The Land Tortoise is America's oldest intact warship because it's inside the borders of the United States and it remains, despite its two centuries submerged, in one piece.

(Image: Tom Bacig, University of Minnesota at Duluth)

The Land Tortoise is located at the bottom of Lake George, a lake in New York that is 32 miles long and 3 miles wide. You might think that an enclosed lake is a strange place to build and launch a warship, but it wasn't in 1758.

At that time, the colonies that would become the United States were still loyal to the British Crown. Lake George formed part of the vague frontier between British and French-claimed lands in North America.

During the French and Indian War, which is what the Seven Years' War is called in North America, the British tried to capture the French-held Fort Carillon, a site later known as Fort Ticonderoga. Fort Carillon lay at the southern end of Lake Champlain and near the northern end of Lake George. In preparation for this battle, the British built a flotilla of oar-propelled vessels.

Among them was a ship known as the Land Tortoise. It was 52 feet long and 18 feet wide. The ship had stout, sloped wooden walls that the designers hoped would deflect musket and cannon fire. There were 7 gunports cut into the walls for cannons that would fire 24-pound balls.

Although the Land Tortoise was far from seaworthy, it was quite capable of moving through the lake, providing support for British troops assaulting Fort Carillon.

The British attack force outnumbered the French 5 to 1, but the French prevailed that day and held Fort Carillon. Fearing that their position on Lake George was untenable, the British decided to temporarily retreat from the region. So they sunk their radeaus, including the Land Tortoise. They planned to raise the ships and put them back into action later, when they had a larger army in the area.

The next year, in 1759, the British routed the French in three different theaters of the war, including the Lake Champlain-Lake George valley. They did not need the Land Tortoise for this task, which remained at the bottom of the lake.

(Video Link)

The Land Tortoise rested there, forgotten, for two centuries. Then, in the 1960s, underwater archaeologists began exploring Lake George and its roughly 200 shipwrecks. A sonar team confirmed the location of the Land Tortoise in 1990. The ship is in remarkably good condition. The hull is solid and the wood well preserved. It's a unique time capsule showing colonial life and naval warfare.

(Image: The Lost Radeau)

Underwater archaeologists Russ Bellico and Joe Zarzynski made a 57-minute documentary about the ship called The Lost Radeau: America's Oldest Intact Warship. The trailer for it is embedded above.

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