by Ray Levato
New York’s Finger Lakes Region is well-known for its natural beauty, scenic vistas, historic towns, and award-winning wineries. But beneath the lakes’ pristine waters are untold stories. They lurk amid shipwrecks and sunken boats.
Perhaps the most famous is the wreckage of the Onondaga, a 175-foot paddlewheel steamer that sank in the middle of Seneca Lake, south of Geneva. A grand picture of it hangs in the promenade of Geneva’s Ramada Inn Lakefront Hotel.
Built in 1860, the Onondaga had outlived its usefulness by 1898, and the owners decided to scuttle the ship in spectacular fashion with 800 pounds of dynamite and blasting powder. Handbills promoting the event, scheduled for September 14, 1898, were distributed in New York and Pennsylvania. They proclaimed that it would be a “Never-to-be-Forgotten Spectacle,” and people traveled on special trains by the thousands to see it. Like a carnival, it featured balloons and vendors, bands and parades, and much excitement.
“They estimated that there were 5,000 people out there, on both sides of the lake off Kashong Point,” says Jim Kennard, a retired Kodak electrical engineer, and one of the most enterprising shipwreck explorers in the entire Northeast. Kennard has discovered dozens of shipwrecks large and small, including the Onondaga. “What they saw was not the ship exploding in a thousand pieces, as one would have expected. Instead, they saw a huge cloud of smoke around where the ship had been.”
At the proscribed time of 4 p.m. there was an ear-shattering “Boom!” as the ship was blown up, Jim says. A slight breeze came up from the southern end of the lake and blew away the 500-foot-tall cloud of yellow smoke, and there was nothing there. The ship had sunk immediately without so much as a farewell gasp to cheer about.
“Nobody saw it sink,” explains Jim. “All they saw was the smoke.”
Debris, including piles of dead fish, washed ashore for the next week.
Hunting and diving
Kennard and his teammates Roger Pawlowski and Hans Daatsetaar first located the Onondaga in 2010. He had hoped to find the shipwreck somewhat intact, but his sonar image only showed the faint outlines of the Onondaga’s sides. “After we later learned about all the explosives they had onboard, we were actually surprised there was anything left of the ship,” he says.
In 2012, the team returned to the site with more sophisticated side-scan sonar and deep depth capability. The picture it showed them of the phantom-like ship, located at a depth of 400 feet, was almost like an aerial photograph, he explains. All that was left was part of the hull sticking up about a foot from the bottom. The rest had been blown to smithereens.
While the Onondaga’s tale is well-documented, the stories about the wrecks of old canal boats and barges in the Finger Lakes are harder to discover. These less-glamorous vessels were often towed by early steamships as cargo carriers – usually loaded with coal – which the captains quickly cut loose in a storm to save the mother ship.
In the early 1980s, Kennard and his dive partner at the time, Scott Hill, dove on wrecks in three lakes – Seneca, Keuka and Cayuga – and located a number of these vessels. They found one with a load of coal still intact in 110 feet of water, south of Geneva near Glass Factory Bay.
Where Native Americans plied the Finger Lakes in their canoes, European settlers would follow with steam-powered paddlewheelers that transformed the lakes into commercial thoroughfares. It was far easier to float cargo over water than haul it over rudimentary roads. Boats were the trucks of yesterday, and lakes were the highways.
“We can’t search everywhere – the Finger Lakes are just too large for us to survey in their entirety,” says Kennard. “But when we have newspaper articles or personal accounts, it provides us with clues about where the wrecks might be in deeper water, and we go back,” says Kennard. Some discarded canal boats were found off Salt Point in the south end of Seneca Lake off Route 14 near Watkins Glen.
“We also found some in Cayuga Lake, and a few in Keuka Lake. I would say we found about 30 underwater wrecks in the Finger Lakes. Most were barges or canal boats.”
Some of the wrecks Kennard and his team have found have become diveable sites for other scuba enthusiasts. He meticulously documented their finds for authenticity.
The Great Lakes
Kennard started diving on shipwrecks in the 1970s in Lake Champlain, a body of water he considers a treasure trove of underwater history. In 1989, he and Hill partnered with National Geographic to explore a horse-powered ferry boat he discovered in Burlington Bay. “We thought that was the pinnacle of our success, but boy, was I wrong.”
His focus shifted to Lake Ontario, where shipwreck documentation in old newspaper accounts offer clues on where they could be found. In 2008, Kennard, along with Dan Scoville and Roland Stevens, found what he calls the Holy Grail of Great Lakes’ shipwrecks – the HMS Ontario. The search had taken three years and covered 200 square miles of the lake.
The British warship was fully intact in deep water at the lake’s western end. It sank in a sudden and fierce gale after departing Ft. Niagara on October 31, 1780, with more than 120 people aboard, including women and children. All hands were lost. Some of its boats and other debris were spotted the following day, but nothing more was found on land or water until the following summer, when several bodies washed up on shore about 12 miles east of the Niagara River.
Experts said the HMS Ontario would never be found, but Kennard and his team were utilizing a video-capable remote operated vehicle – ROV – that made it possible to see live video in deep water, without the use of a scuba diver. While he is very proud of his discovery of the Ontario, finding smaller, less-romantic canal boats are also fun.
“Over time, the sport of diving on wrecks has evolved into an appreciation of history,” he says. “I once viewed something underwater as a treasure with monetary value. But the real treasure is in the maritime history, and bringing that history to the surface, so that it can be shared with others.”
Ray Levato is a retired news reporter/anchor for WHEC-TV Channel 10 in Rochester, New York.