Two canal boats, possibly from the mid-19th century, were found in the depths of Lake Ontario by a team of shipwreck explorers — unusual since canal boats were not intended for use on the open lake.
Using side scan sonar, Jim Kennard, Roger Pawlowski, and Roland Stevens made the rare discovery while searching for shipwrecks near Oswego, N.Y., last year.
Kennard says this summer they were able to send down two divers and visually examine the boats using an underwater remote-operated vehicle.
The canal boat and canal scow — 65 and 78 feet long respectively — were found more than 200 feet below the surface, a few miles apart from each other on a route about halfway between Oswego and Sackets Harbour, says Kennard’s report on the discovery.
The canal boat had a plank-on-frame type of construction that was fine for travel on the Oswego and Eerie Canals, but not designed to withstand the pounding and stress of a storm on Lake Ontario, wrote Kennard. It was found with its stern torn away, and no signs of an upper deck, cabin or cargo.
“It can be speculated that whatever cargo this canal boat was carrying probably caused the stern to break away during turbulent lake conditions,” said Kennard’s report.
The canal scow was discovered with its entire port side torn away.
“Here again, caught in rough conditions while crossing the lake the shifting cargo probably caused the side of the scow to collapse and the vessel to founder,” says Kennard’s report.
The explorers believe the owners of the boat and scow assumed a great risk by attempting to take them out onto the lake, presumably to transport cargo to or from Oswego or Sackets Harbor.
“In calm weather, you could probably do it without any problem, but you’re on Lake Ontario, so storms can get pretty brutal,” Kennard told the Star. “It doesn’t take long for the lake to kick up and get four-to-six-foot waves or greater.”
“It’s almost like somebody having an old car and saying, let’s drive this for another 200 to 300 miles,” he said. “It ends up by the side of the road.”
Even after an exhaustive search through archives and Kennard’s database of 600 Lake Ontario shipwrecks, neither the boat nor the scow could be identified.
But the size of both vessels indicates that they are probably from the period between 1850 and 1862, when the Erie Canal system was widened to accommodate larger boats up to 90 feet long and 15 feet wide.