A team of amateur- but still really damn good- underwater archeologists have discovered the incredibly-intact remains of an 1803 shipwreck in Lake Ontario, one of the earliest shipwrecks in the vast lake system. From their website:
Oswego, NY – A rare 18th century built sloop, Washington (also known as Lady Washington), has been discovered in Lake Ontario off the shores of Oswego, New York by a team of shipwreck explorers. Jim Kennard, Roger Pawlowski, and Roland Stevens located the sloop in late June utilizing high resolution side scan sonar equipment.
The sloop was enroute from Kingston, Ontario to Niagara, Ontario, Canada with a full cargo when it foundered during a gale on Lake Ontario in 1803. The Washington is believed to be the oldest confirmed commercial sailing ship to exist in the Great Lakes. It was the first sloop built on Lake Erie and the first to sail in both Lakes Erie and Ontario. Sloops only existed for a limited period of time on the Great Lakes as they were replaced by schooners which had two or more masts and were much more efficient to operate.
It’s a thrilling find on a historical level. It’s also incredible to think about the enormous differences a scant 200 years can make. For settlers, in 1803, Erie and Ontario were on the edge of the West, that teeter-point between a barely-carved civilization the just pushed itself away from the coast into the fearful forests and the wild lands outside (the story was a little different for the natives, of course). The fur trade, while declining, was still incredibly important, and a continuous link to the early days of colonization and exploitation, a direct line between the toddling American nation and the days of trappers and Jesuits.
And the Lakes were wild and fearsome beasts, capable of rising up and swallowing a ship whole, never to be seen again. It’s only in the last few decades, really, that we’ve gotten to the point where a Great Lakes shipwreck would be due to massive error, rather than the cruel and unforgiving coldness and brutality of the whipping winds and exploding waves.
But you can still see it when you walk past any of them, on a summer storm or during a winter gale. You can see the contained fury stir up into a frenzy, and from a safe and warm window you can imagine being out there, in a creaking wooden ship, eeking out a living bringing the dissected remnants of nature back to the cities in exchange for the meagerest goods of survival, and know the fear that must have gripped them when this implacable and wild land struck back. When Ontario, the smallest of the Lakes, but still terrifyingly larger than three of the original 13 states, roared up, and swallowed you whole, your bones never to be seen again, lost in the country, lost in the water, lost in a new America. You can still feel that vastness, sometimes, a chill up your spine, as you wonder what we’ve gained, and think of all that was lost doing so.