Courtesy Mark RyanA long-sought 18th century British warship has finally been discovered on the bottom of one of the Great Lakes bordering Canada and the United States. The HMS Ontario, a Royal Navy sloop that patrolled Lake Ontario during the American Revolutionary War, was sailing to Oswego, New York from Fort Niagara when it sank in a violent storm on October 31, 1780, taking with it all on board.
The shipwreck was discovered a couple weeks ago, sitting in mud under about 500 feet of water off the southern shore of Lake Ontario. Jim Kennard and Dan Scoville, two shipwreck enthusiasts who share credit for the discovery, used side-sonar and an unmanned submersible device to locate the wreck. The two men have been searching together for the HMS Ontario for more than three years. And now that they’ve found it, they’re keeping the location secret, at least for the time being. They’ll only say that it’s in deep water somewhere between Rochester and Niagara.
"It's a British war grave and we want to make sure it remains undisturbed,” said Kennard, a veteran diver who has found over 200 wrecks. Despite the HMS Ontario’s age and present location, it would still be considered property of the British Admiralty.
The HMS Ontario was constructed in the spring of 1780 on Carleton Island
at the lake’s east end where it flows into the St. Lawrence River. The 80-foot sloop was fitted with two masts and 22 cannons and used mainly to ferry soldiers and supplies back and forth across the lake during the summer of 1780. Some historians speculate the warship never fired any of its cannons. When she sank, the Ontario took with her 88 souls - at least according to official records. Letters from an individual living at Fort Niagara at the time claim there were also 30 unlisted American prisoners on the ship who also died in the tragedy.
Debris from the HMS Ontario washed up on shore about 30 miles east of Fort Niagara, and the ship’s sails were found adrift a few days after the storm. Months later, six bodies were recovered about 12 miles east of the Niagara River, and that was the last evidence of the sinking anyone saw. That is, until Kennard and Scoville located Ontario’s final resting place two week ago.
The discovery has been called a miracle of archaeology, and may be the oldest Great Lake’s shipwreck ever found.
"It's the oldest confirmed shipwreck in the lakes," Scoville said. "And very few warships went down." He added that it’s definitely the most intact warship ever discovered.
The ship’s condition surprised even its seasoned explorers. Kennard said the 228-year-old wreck might have gone down more gently in the storm than previously thought, because it doesn’t appear to be very battered. Two crow’s nests remain on both masts, and eight cannons still line the deck. One anchor is attached to the side of the ship, while another rests on the lake bottom. Some of the windows in the quarter galleries are even intact, despite tremendous underwater pressures. They also contribute the high level of preservation to the lake’s cold temperatures and lack of light and oxygen.
Here's some video of the historic wreck.
More than 4700 shipwrecks litter the bottom of the Great Lakes, 500 of them in Lake Ontario. But for Kennard and Scoville any future discoveries they make are going to be hard to match their discovery of the HMS Ontario.
"This is the Holy Grail of Great Lakes wrecks," Kennard said. "There's nothing more significant than this one."