Old newspaper articles helped Fairport, N.Y.-based diver and shipwreck enthusiast Jim Kennard and two other divers recently find a schooner that sank deep into Lake Ontario 175 years ago.
A veteran of researching shipwrecks, Mr. Kennard said he consulted the Oswego Daily Palladium, a newspaper published between 1851 and 1887, to identify a general area where the ruins of the schooner Atlas might have settled.
“Newspaper reports back then from the Oswego Daily Palladium — they talked about the ship. We knew that it was a couple miles or so offshore, so that’s where we sort of targeted our search area,” he said.
Mr. Kennard and his team, Roger Pawlowski and Roland “Chip” Stevens, used a high-resolution sonar system to locate the schooner's remnants near Oswego last month.
Using grant funding from the Great Lakes Historical Society, which is developing a National Museum of the Great Lakes in Toledo, the men then were able to deploy an underwater, remote-controlled vehicle last week to get a video recording of the shipwreck.
“The ship is actually in deep water. It’s beyond the diveable depths of recreation,” Mr. Kennard said, explaining why the remote vehicle had to be used.
Since visibility was limited, he said, the team was able to use a sector-scanning sonar system that is like radar and allowed the men to get an estimate of the schooner’s dimensions.
“Based on that, we knew the ship was essentially around about 52-feet long and 16-½ feet wide,” he said.
Other research materials, such as enrollment papers from when the schooner set sail for the last time, also helped provide clues.
The Atlas’ last voyage, in May, 1839, carried Black River limestone from Chaumont, N.Y., to the port of Oswego, northwest of Syracuse.
Several miles offshore, the schooner encountered high winds that are believed to have cause its cargo to shift, sending the vessel plunging to the lake bottom with all five of its crew.
“It’s the only schooner that I’m aware of that was actually carrying stone,” Mr. Kennard said. “So it’s kind of unique.”
Very little debris floated to the surface, and for generations the wreckage was considered lost for good.
Great Lakes Historical Society Executive Director Chris Gillcrist said Mr. Kennard’s expertise made a critical difference.
“As his hobby, he’s committed to finding as many shipwrecks as he can,” he said. “He’s done so much of the on-ground research in the libraries to narrow his search area. He’s been doing this for 30 years, he knows what’s down there. It’s not so important to know where to look. It’s important to know where not to look.”
Mr. Gillcrist said the Great Lakes Historical Society gave the crew a grant of about $3,000 to help with supplies, ramp-loading fees, and other incidental expenses in the search.
“We don’t pay him as a laborer. We don’t pay him a salary. We help defer the cost of this hobby so he can continue to look for it, and it’s really a great way to accomplish this task,” he said.
The Great Lakes Historical Society, founded in 1944, operates a maritime museum and research library and offers educational programs.
Since 2001, it also has supported underwater archaeological research in the Great Lakes.
The National Museum of the Great Lakes is under construction near downtown Toledo and is expected to open in April, 2014.
The manner in which the schooner sank caused heavy damage, Mr. Kennard said. Its deck collapsed, the impact weakened its sides, and only the aft deck remained intact. Video footage shows a ship’s wheel encrusted with mussels.
Mr. Kennard said many historians will be interested in the findings.
“There’s questions that have come up about some building detail of the ship, because it’s a very old ship, but there’s certain construction details that the archaeologists like to know about.”
He said the team would return to the wreckage area if prompted. “If there’s enough reason to go back, I think we would go back,” he said.
Anna Kolin, development director for the National Museum of the Great Lakes, said the discovery is important for the entire region.
“It’s going to put Toledo even more on the map regarding the Great Lakes and the different archaeological opportunities in the Great Lakes,” Ms. Kolin said.
Contact Kelly McLendon at:
419-724-6522, or on