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Researchers Find Second-Oldest Shipwreck In Lake Ontario: What This Could Mean For American History

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A team of underwater explorers from New York has discovered the wreckage of a 19th century sloop in Lake Ontario, which could very well be the second oldest shipwreck ever to be found in North America's Great Lakes region.

Jim Kennard and his colleagues, Roland Stevens and Roger Pawlowski, were exploring the deep waters off of Oswego, New York last summer when they came across the sunken ship.

Through the help of underwater images captured using a remote-controlled vehicle, the researchers found out that the wreckage belonged to the Washington, a Canadian-owned commercial sloop that sank in the Great Lakes during a storm in 1803.

Kennard said the finding of the Washington can be considered a very special event since they don't get to see many other shipwrecks like it.

A Piece Of History

According to historians, the 53-foot-long Washington was constructed in Pennsylvania sometime in 1798. It was used to ferry passengers and goods between various points such as Pennsylvania, New York and Ontario in Canada.

After it was purchased by Canadian merchants in 1802, the sloop was mostly used to move cargo from the Niagara Isthmus to Lake Ontario. Operators placed the ship on skids and used teams of oxen to haul it back and forth across the water.

On Nov. 6, 1803, the Washington left port in Kingston, Ontario in order to make its way back to its homeport in Niagara. However, it was soon caught in a devastating storm, which caused the vessel to sink.

The sloop had at least three members of its crew and two merchants aboard when it sank in Lake Ontario, all of whom died during the incident.

Modern-day records show that some of the goods the Washington was carrying at the time of its sinking were retrieved the following day when they were washed ashore in Oswego. They were found along with parts of the ship.

Kennard said the Washington is now the oldest confirmed wreckage of a commercial ship ever to be discovered in the Great Lakes. It is also the only known sloop to have been used in Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.

Carrie Sowden, director of archaeology at the National Museum of the Great Lakes, explained that single-masted vessels, such as the Washington, were phased out during the early part of the 1800s. They were replaced by two- and three-masted schooners, which were easier to maneuver for sailors of the time.

She said that the finding of the Washington will provide researchers with valuable information on its construction and design, especially since there are no illustrations available of this 19th century sloop.

"Every shipwreck offers something different that adds to our knowledge base," Sowden said.

So far, the oldest sailing vessel to be found in the Great Lakes region is the British warship, HMS Ontario, which sank in 1780. Kennard and his team discovered its wreckage in 2008.

Photo: Robert Linsdell | Flickr

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