Deep in the waters of Lake Ontario, a light casts itself across a massive form beneath the water. The remote operated vehicle inches closer and closer before revealing the image to Jim Kennard, Roger Pawlowski and Roland Stevens.
Before their eyes, the Washington, a sloop ship that sank nearly 200 years ago, famous for being the first ship to sail both Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, lay beneath the water. When they found it, the ship was completely whole, nearly untouched by the sands of time.
The three were thrilled by their discovery and immediately dove into the rich history of the Washington.
Sinking Into It
The sloop Washington was built in 1797 and completed in 1798 for the Pennsylvania Population Company. Back then, they owned a lot of land near Lake Erie and were trying to sell it. Settlers from New York couldn’t ignore the offer and came piling onto the sloop Washington, beginning their expedition to Ohio.
In spite of all those searching for new homes and opportunities, by 1799 the boat began costing more money than it earned. Trying not to sink with the boat, the Pennsylvania Population Company sold the Washington to a group of merchants headed by Robert Hamilton, a previous partner with the company.
During this time, a debate on the ship's name came to fruition. Some argued that it be called the Lady Washington, while many others continued to simply call it the Washington. Somehow, the name Lady Washington stuck around, but the official name of the ship continued to be the Washington. This was all found in letters written by Robert Hamilton discussing the matter.
The Washington continued to make voyages monthly from Ohio to New York, often making a stop along the Oswego River to service the boat with salt. The ship carried passengers, goods, and money through the lakes and was acclaimed as the first ship to sail through both Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.
On November 6, 1803, the Washington made its usual voyage from Lake Erie to Oswego to Lake Ontario and back again as it always had. However, terror brewed as an autumn storm threatened to strike.
Try as they might, the crew couldn’t steer the ship through the onslaught and they sank on their way to maintenance along the Oswego River. The water swallowed the ship along with everyone on it.
There were no survivors. The ship and its history remained lost until Kennard and his team chanced upon it in 2016.
Upon the discovery, Kennard speculates the ship went down stern first, as the stern of the boat seemed to be crushed from the weight of the crash. The conclusion that it went down on its way for maintenance came from the fact that, although most of the ship was found in Lake Ontario, it was missing its tiller. Later, they found one of Washington’s tillers in the waters of the Oswego River.
The Underwater Museum
Kennard, Pawlowski, and Stevens have all been in the business of exploring shipwrecks for a long time, functioning like a well-oiled machine through it all. With Pawlowski’s boat and remote-controlled vehicle, Kennard’s sonar, and Steven’s artistic prowess, the three find themselves in love with the history-rich underwater world.
When asked why the ship was in nearly pristine condition after the wreck, Kennard explained that freshwater boats do not deteriorate the way that saltwater boats do because they are less exposed to wood-eating mussels. Back then, there were not any invasive species in the waters of the Great Lakes, which meant that, in the deep, cold waters, ships like the sloop Washington remained almost completely untouched.
“Shipwreck exploration is significant because I get the chance to write the final chapter for that ship,” explained Kennard. “I get to discover how its story ends. You can scale mountains, but that mountain was not discovered by you. When I find a shipwreck, I get the chance to see something that no one has ever seen before.”
With such a deep lake, and an even deeper history, it is no wonder that explorers like Kennard and his team continue to delve into the water and uncover the mysteries of lost ships.
Shipwrecks of Lake Ontario: A Journey of Discovery
For more information, check out Jim Kennard’s recent book Shipwrecks of Lake Ontario: A Journey of Discovery. You can get the book through www.shipwrecksworld.com.