NY explorers: 1839 shipwreck found in Lake Ontario

Published 10:59 am Thursday, July 25, 2013

OSWEGO, N.Y. — The sunken remains of a vessel that’s believed to be the oldest confirmed commercial schooner shipwreck in the Great Lakes has been found in Lake Ontario near Oswego, where it went down during a fierce storm in 1839, a team of New York-based underwater explorers announced.

Jim Kennard of Fairport, Roger Pawlowski of Gates and Roland Stevens of Poultneyville said Thursday they located the wreck of the Atlas last month while searching for sunken ships on Lake Ontario’s eastern end. The team’s side-scan sonar found the shipwreck in more than 200 feet of water about 2 miles north of Oswego, Kennard said.

The 52-foot Atlas sank during a violent storm in May 1839 while taking a cargo of limestone quarried in Jefferson County to Oswego. None of the five crewmembers on board survived. Built the year before in Jefferson County, the two-masted ship was built specifically for hauling building stone from local quarries, Kennard said.

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The Atlas was nearing Oswego’s harbor when it was hit by gale-force winds that likely shifted the heavy cargo, causing the schooner to sink quickly and giving its crew no time to get to their lifeboat, Kennard said. The sinking was witnessed by people on shore. A rescue ship sent out to look for survivors only found a few items belonging to the crew, he said.

“It literally sank like a stone,” Kennard said.

Video images of the shipwreck indicate the schooner hit the lake’s bottom hard, toppling the masts and causing the deck to collapse on itself, he said. The ship’s wheel, heavily encrusted with mussels, remains intact. The ship’s name doesn’t appear on the hull, but that’s not unusual for a wreck as old as the Atlas, Kennard said.

“It would be nice if the name was on back of the ship, but names don’t end up existing after quite a number of years like that,” he said.

Kennard said the Atlas was the only ship of that size known to have sunk near Oswego while hauling cut stone. The team’s video shows some of the stone cargo still in the ship’s hold.

Other commercial schooner shipwrecks on the Great Lakes could be older than the Atlas, but none have been positively identified, Kennard said.

“There was commercial shipping prior to that, of course, but we’ve not been able to find” those shipwrecks, said Carrie Sowden, archaeological director for the Great Lakes Historical Society in Vermilion, Ohio. “This gives us an opportunity to learn more about early shipping — how they were built, how they were operated.”

Atlas will be left where it lies.

In 2008, Kennard and Dan Scoville discovered the British warship HMS Ontario, the oldest shipwreck ever found in the Great Lakes. The Ontario sank in Lake Ontario in 1780.