By Garret Ellison
LAKE ONTARIO — When it comes to Great Lakes shipwreck hunting, sometimes it's a matter of feast or famine.
In 2014, New York wreck sleuths Jim Kennard and Roger Pawlowski found four undiscovered shipwrecks in the waters of Lake Ontario.
This year, the duo found one — a propeller steamer named the Bay State, which foundered in a storm off Fair Haven, N.Y. in 1862. Discovery of the ship, launched before the Civil War, was announced on Wednesday, Oct. 21.
"We were getting pretty discouraged when something popped up on the depth finder," said Kennard. "About 15 seconds later, the side-scan sonar went over."
"Finally, we found something."
The Bay State is the oldest propeller-driven steamship discovered in Lake Ontario. It sank en route to Ohio with a cargo of general merchandise after leaving Oswego, N.Y. late on Nov. 4, 1862. There were no survivors.
Kennard, who has been exploring shipwrecks since the 1970s, would only say the wreck is in several hundred feet of water about seve miles north of Fair Haven. Vagueness helps guard the wreck from potential looting and inexperienced divers, he said.
He and Pawlowski found the wreck around Aug. 20. They returned with a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) that recorded imagery before nearly becoming a wreck of its own. The Bay State debris snagged the ROV tether line and the $45,000 piece of equipment had to be left behind and retrieved a month later by divers.
The duo were out canvassing a grid using a database of Lake Ontario wrecks when their search boat passed over the Bay State and its debris field, which Kennard said extends about a quarter mile along the lake bottom.
Debris west of the wreck site indicates the ship turned around to seek shelter from the approaching storm, which was blowing with gale force from the west.
Like many ships that sink rapidly, the Bay State's upper decks were blown apart by air escaping the ship as it sank. Much of the flotsam washed ashore near Oswego and was eagerly carted away by locals as if a "Home Depot had just opened."
Between 16 and 18 people died in the wreck. Precise records on the ship are scarce, he said. There are no known pictures of the Bay State.
The 137-foot long, 26-foot wide double-deck single masted Bay State was built in Buffalo, N.Y. in 1852 by Bidwell & Banta shipbuilders. Chamberlain & Crawford of Cleveland was the ship owner when it sank.
The ship was among the earliest propeller steamers to ply the lakes. Prior to 1841, steamships were driven by paddlewheels. Kennard said New York maritime historians are interested in knowing more about the propeller and engine.
"This very old steamer will yield some interesting maritime facts," he said.
Kennard, who is a member of the famed Explorers Club, has found more than 200 shipwrecks in the past 40 years. His biggest find was in 2008, when Kennard and fellow hunter Dan Scoville discovered the 235-year-old British warship HMS Ontario, the oldest shipwreck ever discovered in the Great Lakes.