Wreck of sloop built in Erie found deep in Lake Ontario
August 20, 2016 12:00 AM
A rare 18th-century built sloop, the Lady Washington, has been discovered in Lake Ontario off the shores of Oswego, N.Y., by a team of shipwreck explorers.
By David Patch / Block News Alliance
OSWEGO, N.Y. — The wreckage of a ship built in Erie, Pa., and believed to have been the first commercial sailing vessel built on the Great Lakes has been discovered on Lake Ontario’s bottom by shipwreck hunters financed by the National Museum of the Great Lakes
“The discovery of the Lady Washington pushes the boundary back for Great Lakes commercial shipwreck history,” Christopher Gillcrist, the museum’s executive director, said in a statement this week announcing the discovery. “Breaking the 18th century barrier is not only psychologically important, but the wreck may reveal the earliest shipbuilding techniques on the Great Lakes ever examined.”
It is the oldest commercial vessel ever found in the Great Lakes and is believed to be the second oldest vessel of any kind still intact, after a sunken British naval vessel found eight years ago.
The 53-foot sloop was en route from Kingston, Ont., to Niagara, Ont., fully loaded with cargo when it sank during a Lake Ontario gale in 1803. Its wreckage was found in June in deep water off Oswego, but the vessel’s identity wasn’t confirmed until July, according to the statement of the museum, which is based in Toledo, Ohio.
The sloop was built in 1797 in Erie and for its first few years was used to move settlers and merchandise around eastern Lake Erie.
In November 1801, it was sold to merchants in Queenston, Ont., who arranged for it to be moved to Lake Ontario, which involved the use of rollers on an eight-mile portage road to bypass Niagara Falls. It thus became the first vessel to sail in both Lakes Erie and Ontario.
All aboard were lost when the Lady Washington, with a cargo capacity of 36 tons, sank two years later. Several articles of cargo and bits of wreckage that washed ashore in Oswego testified to its sinking.
After discovery with side-scanning sonar, the search team of Jim Kennard, Roger Pawlowski, and Roland “Chip” Stevens used a remotely operated vehicle to descend to the sunken wreckage to document and measure the Lady Washington.
“Now, with imagery and measurements, there is a better understanding of the design of this very rare 18th-century sailing vessel,” the museum’s statement said. “Sloops on the Great Lakes were soon replaced by schooners, which were much more efficient to operate.”
The sloop appears mostly intact, although its sails and rigging have long since rotted away and its stern shows significant damage, which the museum said indicates the stern hit the lake bottom first when it sank.
The vessel will not be raised. Shipwrecks like that of the Lady Washington “are protected by state and federal law from unauthorized disturbance,” the museum said.
The same research team in 2008 discovered the oldest known Great Lakes shipwreck, that of the HMS Ontario, a British military vessel lost in 1780. It, too, sank in Lake Ontario off the New York shoreline in an estimated 500 to 600 feet of water.
Precise locations are not being given for either shipwreck.
Earlier this year, the same shipwreck hunters reported discovering the Royal Albert, a 19th-century Canadian schooner hauling 285 tons of railroad iron to Toledo from Oswego that sank off Fair Haven, N.Y., when its cargo shifted and burst its seams.
And last year, Mr. Kennard and Mr. Pawlowski discovered the wreckage of the Bay State, a propeller-driven steamship bound for Toledo with passengers and cargo that sank near Fair Haven during a storm in 1862. The Bay State is the oldest propeller-driven vessel found in the Great Lakes.
Overall, more than 600 ships are believed to have wrecked over the years in Lake Ontario or at its ports, with about 200 of those believed to be on the bottom. Across the Great Lakes, more than 6,000 vessels have wrecked, burned, or sunk over the past 236 years.
The Block News Alliance consists of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. David Patch is a reporter for The Blade.
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