Found at the bottom of West Hill Pond in northwestern Connecticut by divers in 1988, this chestnut canoe had been deliberately sunk in about twelve feet of water using rocks, perhaps to ensure it remained below the ice of the lake during the winter. West Hill Pond is located at 900+ feet elevation and ice thickness frequently reaches eighteen to twenty four inches. The pond itself bottoms out at about 65 feet – deep for lakes in Connecticut. The actual depth at time of sinking may have been perhaps four feet less (eight feet of water) since four feet is the depth of the impoundment created by the West Hill Pond dam.
The divers turned the eighteen foot long canoe over to Yale University’s Peabody Museum – who in turn donated the canoe to the Mashantucket Pequot Museum in 1996 for conservation and display. The canoe is currently on display at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum.
According to the Connecticut State Museum, dugouts of American chestnut were not uncommon on freshwater lakes in CT. Chestnut, while preferring the mesic, acidic well-drained soils of western CT, also prefers abundant sunshine. Even today, there are many American chestnut trees growing along the shore – especially the western shore with open and sunny eastern exposure – of West Hill Pond. The Connecticut State Museum also has a an example of a dugout canoe discovered during the draining of a lake in Bethel, CT back in 1911. That canoe is also estimated to be from the 16th or 17th century. An article goes on to note that all the dugout canoes found in New England have been found underwater or at the bottom of lakes where the cold water enhances preservation and inaccessibility hinders destructive access.
Chestnut would have been a preferred material for building a dugout. American chestnut wood has a high tannic acid content which makes it resistant to decay. The trees were common, grew close to the water, and the tall straight (branchless) trunks would all have made them suitable and preferred for a canoe. As one of the lightest of the hardwoods one of the easiest to work, and we are told, one of the largest trees in pre-colonial America, it would have been a natural choice of a dugout canoe builder. While we don’t know for sure, speculation would indicate that the canoes are used for fishing.