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Explorers Find Second Oldest Shipwreck in the Great Lakes

The merchant sloop Washington went down in a storm in 1803 on Lake Ontario

smithsonian.com

There are over 6,000 shipwrecks on the bottom of the Great Lakes, from 20th century iron haulers to 18th century military ships. So finding a new wreck isn’t particularly big news. But divers' latest find, the wreck of the Washington, is making waves as the second oldest wreck ever recorded in the Great Lakes.

According to Kris Maher at The Wall Street Journal, the 53-foot sloop went down in a storm on Lake Ontario in 1803, carrying $20,000 worth of goods, some of them shipped from as far as India. A group of retirees, including Roger Pawlowski, Roland Stevens and Jim Kennard (who has discovered about 200 wrecks) found the ship's remains in the deep waters off Oswego, New York. 

The Washington was the first commercial sailing sloop constructed on Lake Erie and was launched in 1798, Kennard writes on his website, Shipwreck World. For three years it shuttled settlers and goods between New York state, Canada and Pennsylvania. But the shipping route wasn’t profitable and the ship was sold to merchants in Queenston, Ontario. In the winter of 1802, the ship was mounted on runners and pulled by a team of oxen for eight miles overland around Niagara Falls and launched on Lake Ontario, making it the first commercial vessel to sail both Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.

Kennard and his team located the sloop in late June using side scanning sonar. They then returned on a calm day and used an ROV to take videos and measurements of the ship, which is still mostly intact with its mast still standing. From the ship’s style and measurements, they determined it was the Washington.

For Kennard, finding any new ship is a thrill, but this one is of particular interest because merchants used the single-masted sloops on the lakes for a brief period before they were replaced with two and three-masted schooners. “We’re always excited,” Kennard tells Maher. “I tell people you can’t be the first on a mountain anymore. Most mountains have been climbed. But you can be the first one to discover and look at a shipwreck.” His previous finds include the oldest wreck in the Great Lakes, the HMS Ontario, a 22-gun British war ship that sank in a storm in 1780, during the American Revolution.

Kennard says damage to the ship indicates it sank stern first. But the team won’t be investigating further; he tells Maher he does not want to accidentally reveal the location of the ship to ensure it remains undisturbed. In fact, Kennard says he often pretends to be fishing while searching for wrecks to protect his finds, and he rarely revisits them.

“We can’t really disclose the depth or even the distance from shore," Kennard tells CTV News. "These are little mini museums and we like to keep them confidential so that they will stay preserved. It only takes one to say, ‘Oh, I want that mast, I want that wheel,’" he says. "So, we do try our best to keep these locations confidential.”

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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