Shipwreck found in Lake Ontario
Sunday, September 28, 2003
Democrat & Chronicle, Rochester New York, U.S. by Corydon Ireland
One day this summer, Rochester scuba diver Dan Scoville dropped over the side of a 16-foot boat into Lake Ontario, about two miles off the coast of Pultneyville, Wayne County.
Within three minutes, he was hovering in frigid water just above the ghostly wreck of a Civil War-era steamship that sank in a gale-force storm 84 years ago this month.
“You drop into total blackness, with no references at all,” said Scoville, describing his first look at the doomed Homer Warren, a Canadian bulk freighter that sank on the morning of Oct. 28, 1919. “All of a sudden, it pops out at you.”
Experts say that four to six deep-water wrecks are discovered a year in the Great Lakes. And according to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Research Foundation in Wisconsin, there are at least 5,000 verifiable wrecks in the five Great Lakes; about 2,000 of them are accessible to recreational divers.
But to the 30-year-old Scoville and his diving partner Jim Kennard, 60, finding the Warren on June 25 was the crowning moment after 18 months of research, and dozens of hours scanning the lake bottom with sonar.
The two waited until today to announce their find, so they could explore the 177-foot wreck further, and record what’s left. They brought nothing to the surface, in part out of respect for the last home of nine crewmembers, who all perished that stormy morning. (No human remains are now on the vessel.)
“The only thing we have taken is video,” said Kennard, a 33-year diver who lives in Perinton. The self-described “shipwreck detective” since 1972 has helped find about 200 sunken wrecks, including 70 in Lake Champlain, 30 in the Finger Lakes and 85 in the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.
But the Warren, which sank while laden with tons of coal and corn aboard, rates high up there on the thrill scale.
“I’ve been through this a number of times,” said the Eastman Kodak electrical engineer. “There’s always a Eureka moment.”
Finding the ship took countless hours, starting with a study of old newspaper accounts and other records.
There was only one witness in 1919, a Pultneyville fisherman who watched as the Warren foundered, lashed by 60-mph winds.
By the time the ship sank in 1919, it was a creaking, vintage craft — the oldest wooden straight deck bulk freighter operating in the Great Lakes, according to newspaper accounts of the time. The Warren’s last voyage started in Oswego and was to go across Lake Ontario to Toronto.
Today, the Warren lies upright in more than 200 feet of water, out of the range of recreational divers.
To get that deep, Scoville — an Eastman Kodak electronic technician with five years of experience as a “technical” diver — had to fill his tanks with an exotic mix of oxygen, helium and compressed air. His dry suit was insulated with argon gas to buffer the cold. On the way up, he had to pause at measured intervals to avoid death from the bends.
In the deep, the wreck Scoville saw had been stripped of its deck and cabin by the crushing storm and was encrusted with zebra mussels. The non-native mollusks, invading the Great Lakes for the last decade or more, have transformed many once-pristine freshwater wrecks into blurred outlines of their former selves.
The Warren, said Kennard, “looks like a coral reef.” Sonar images show the wreck as a slug-shaped mound, with two smaller mounds — the boilers — to one side. The storm had rolled the ship crosswise into a wave, Scoville speculated, sending the anchor and boilers ripping through the deck. The holes still gape.
Tons of corn below decks, swollen to twice its size by moisture, may have helped make the Warren unstable, Kennard said.
The two divers used side-scan sonar to find the wreck’s final resting place. The setup was designed by Kennard.
It uses search beams from two sonar transducers, housed in a slender torpedolike device 4 feet long. This finned “towfish” glides underwater, 15 feet or so off the bottom.
Sound wave signals from the narrow sonar beams are transmitted through a half-inch cable to a suitcase-size recorder. Scanned images appear on a scroll of 19-inch paper, simulating the shape of bottom terrain in an area up to 1,000 feet wide.
It takes 90 minutes in Kennard’s 16-foot bow rider boat at about 3 mph to scan one square mile of lake bottom, traversing the surface in overlapping streaks, like someone mowing the lawn. The two divers, from their library research and from calculations based on weather that day in 1919, had narrowed down the search to 30 square miles.
John Polacsek, curator of the Dossin Great Lakes Museum in Detroit, said side-scan sonar has stepped up the number of wrecks found in Great Lakes water at depths of 120 feet or more. Those that sink in shallower coastal water, he said, are more likely to be battered and destroyed by the seasonal crush of ice.
Each wreck is a sort of library, said Polacsek, who looked up what he called the “genealogy” of the Warren, which in its heyday was an upscale passenger vessel.
Chester A. Peters, 84, was born in Pultneyville the same year the Warren went down and remembers stories of the shipwreck as a boy.
The retired farmer and contractor has been historian of the town of Williamson for 40 years. As such, Peters is custodian of artifacts from what is locally a more famous wreck: the St. Peter, a masted schooner that went down a mile off Pultneyville in 1898. For years, the mast of the vessel stuck above the water. In the winter, it was coated with sparkling ice, “and when the sun would shine you could see it for miles,” he said.
But the sinking of the Homer Warren in 1919 didn’t make much of a dent in local lore, said Peters — perhaps because it lacked the allure of a sparkling mast. From the Warren, four bodies washed up, along with a life boat with a hole in one side — testament to the death of the other five.
Even with the announcement of the vessel’s discovery today, Peters said, the deep-water wreck won’t cause much of a stir in the 1806-era village that in the days of sail was one of Lake Ontario’s busiest ports. There’s nothing to remember it by now, except one old photograph, a few facts in a database and eight minutes of videotape.
“We’re writing the final chapter” of a ship that plied the Great Lakes for 56 years before sinking, Kennard said.
The two divers are doing research now, exploring other candidate wrecks in deep-water Lake Ontario. For the most part, they’ll leave the Warren to its ghostly rest.
“I’ll dive on it again,” said Scoville, who descended to the ship three times this summer — twice with a video camera. “But the wreck is deep and it’s dark, not the place for your average diver to go.”