Molly S. Delano, Staff Writer, Daily Hampshire Gazette, Northampton, Massachusetts

Edward Klekowski sets his compass which is used to navigate under water in the Connecticut River's depths.

Monday, March8, 1999 -- (SOUTH HADLEY) - As a gray sky threatens rain, Edward Klekowski and Sean Werle are scouring the rocky bottom of the Connecticut River, in search of remnants of history.

The two have spent the last six months exploring a 21/2-mile stretch of the river that is littered with strange wooden structures, dams and artifacts that are the remains of one of the oldest river transportation systems in America - the South Hadley Canal.

Klekowski, a University of Massachusetts biology professor, has received a permit from the state Board of Archaeological Resources to map the underwater site, which has never before been fully investigated.

The South Hadley Canal was one of the largest construction projects undertaken in the latter part of the 18th century, according to local historian Theodore Belsky.

The canal was built in 1795 to allow cargo-laden boats to get by the Great Falls at South Hadley and bring their wares north to Northampton and beyond on the Connecticut.

Belsky said above ground remnants of the canal such as locks are designated as a National Historic Site, but little is known about the impact the canal had on the river, or what might still be down there.

"This is really exciting for us because he (Klekowski) is providing all new insight into the terrain of the river and the kinds of artifacts that can be found in it," said Belsky.

While Klekowski and his UMass team have probed many sections of the Connecticut River, the adventures of local divers lured him here.

During a routine dive team drill last summer, divers Robert Blasko and Peter Jesionowski, of the South Hadley Fire Department Dive Team, noticed a large wooden structure. They knew they had found something significant, but they didn't know what.

"Everyone thought we were crazy when we told them it looked like a log cabin," said Blasko.

Last fall, Klekowski received a call from the divers reporting the discovery.

His interest piqued, Klekowski and some students headed for a bend of the river near the Redcliff Canoe Club on Canal Street.

The structure, which is actually called a "crib," is made up of interconnected logs held together with iron spikes.

No one is exactly sure of the purpose of the wooden crib. It measures 20 by 60 feet and rises up about 12 feet.

Klekowski believes the crib, which looks like a wooden cage weighted to the bottom with rocks, acted as a mooring in the canal for boats waiting to enter.

During recent dives, Klekowski, 58, of Leverett, graduate student Werle, 35, of Amherst, and other divers have uncovered everything from centuries-old bottles to encrusted anchors, to what they believe may be an old dam that historians have only read about.

"We just never know what we are going to find down there," said Werle.

The limitless possibilities are what bring Werle and Klekowski to the river at every chance they get, even during the coldest months of the year.

Whatever the crib's original purpose, Klekowski has discovered that it is useful not only as an historical artifact, but also as a tool in his pursuit of a biological understanding of the Connecticut River.

"The structures are really interesting because they are functioning as really old freshwater reefs," said Klekowski.

The massive wooden logs are home to a boundless assortment of species, including tiny animals that date to the days when the river was actually a huge glacial lake, to freshwater sponges that flourish in the cracks and crevices of the logs.

New adventure, challenge

Klekowski has scoured the bottom of the river for biological study in the past, but he has never been involved in an underwater archaeological exploration of this kind.

"It's neat that things from the past are playing such an important role now," Klekowski said.

Klekowski has received a permit from state authorities to map the site, a project he hopes to complete this summer, and the Board of Archaeological Resources is considering designating the site as Massachusetts' first underwater archaeological preserve. But funding for the project is practically nonexistent.

Most of the equipment and expertise used by Klekowski is donated by volunteers or purchased through a patchwork of small grants from a variety of sources.

Biologists, historians, archaeologists and scuba divers have freely donated their time and knowledge, he said.

This loosely knit group of scholars and divers is currently searching for funding to preserve a 100-year-old anchor Werle found that is still resting in the river.

It would take about $4,000 to recover the artifact and have it properly preserved, a cost that will have to be paid for through financial donations or grants, Klekowski said.

For many, including Blasko and Jesionowski, the chance to partake in the unraveling of the past that has remained obscured by the river for so long is enough to ensure their services will always be available.

"I'm getting a real education out of this, and I think the whole town is. I will definitely be out there with Ed every chance I can get," said Jesionowski.

Some of the artifacts Klekowski has found at the South Hadley site are on display in a permanent exhibit at the Springfield Science Museum titled "The Underwater World Of The Connecticut River."

As Sean Werle steadies the launch boat, Edward Klekowski begins their dive into the frigid waters of the Connecticut River to explore remains of the South Hadley Canal. KEVIN GUTTING photo