Friday, November 19, 2004


Divers discover 152-year-old 'Etta Belle' schooner in Lake Ontario


Democrat & Chronicle
Corydon Ireland, Staff writer

(November 18, 2004) — SODUS POINT — About eight miles northeast of this Wayne County village, in 200 feet of frigid water, lies the Rochester area's latest historical discovery.

It's the wreck of the Etta Belle, an oak-hulled schooner that foundered and sank in 1873. Its full load of coal is still visible, bulging from two cargo holds, and coated with zebra mussels.

The Etta Belle, found by two Rochester divers who specialize in hunting Lake Ontario shipwrecks, is the oldest cargo-carrying schooner found on the southern shore of the lake.

It's also one of just two that are fully preserved. In 1971, two divers found the St. Peter, a pristine wreck, near Pultneyville, Wayne County.

Fewer than 1,000 shipwrecks are thought to repose in Lake Ontario; about 200 have been explored by divers.

Finding the Etta Belle was unexpected, said shipwreck detective Jim Kennard, a 61-year-old Eastman Kodak Co. electrical engineer from Perinton and a diver since 1970.

In September 2003, he and diving partner Dan Scoville, 31, were aboard their 16-foot search boat, motoring shoreward after a little engine trouble. Kennard had left his self-designed side-scan sonar running, and what looked like an outcropping of rock showed up on the screen. "We saw something that looked like something," he said. "It was enough to get us to come back."

In November, Scoville strapped on his cold-water gear and dived on the site. He ended up directly over the wreck, whose shape quickly emerged from the gloom. It had landed rightside-up in brown silt. Scoville aimed his video camera — which quickly jammed.

"We had one minute of video," said Kennard, frustration still in his voice. "Then we had to think about it for six months."This May, Scoville started another series of dives, collecting an hour of videotape and building a case for identifying the ship.

After dozens of hours in several libraries and museums, the historical evidence led Kennard to the Etta Belle, which sank just eight years after the end of the Civil War.

"It was a nice story," said Kennard of the ship, which went down on Sept. 3, 1873, in relatively calm weather.

"Everybody got off."The ship, rebuilt in 1870 from a Canadian boat constructed in 1852, sprang a leak just under the waterline on the port bow. After an hour of frantic pumping, the captain and his crew gave up, retreating into a small yawl for an eight-mile row to shore.

It took them several hours, according to newspaper accounts at the time. Their hasty escape was evident, because none of them retrieved any possessions. One crewman even arrived at Sodus Point stark naked.

The loose board that sank the ship is visible in Scoville's video — proof that the wreck has lain undisturbed for 131 years.Lake water can get so deep and cold that some wrecks "are like ships in a bottle," said Great Lakes historian Brendon Baillod. A pair of British warships near Hamilton, Ontario, sunk in a gale in 1813, are so well preserved in 300 feet of water "they could easily be refloated and sailed," he said.

The wreck of the Etta Belle "was like seeing history," said Scoville, who explored the old ship in half-hour intervals. "It's still exactly the way it was."

Baillod, a published maritime historian whose daytime job in Madison, Wis., is software engineering, said the discovery of the Etta Belle had only "modest" historical value.

But it's important in Lake Ontario, "where there are very few wrecks to begin with," he said.About five shipwrecks a year, on average, are found on the Great Lakes. There are an estimated 6,000 altogether — most of them in lakes Erie, Huron and Michigan.

"Lake Ontario is not really known for its wrecks," said Baillod, 40, whose Web site includes a database of sinkings and sightings on all five lakes, going back to 1679. "The western lakes had much more commerce, and a greater number of wrecks."

In the Great Lakes region, the location of about 2,500 of those wrecks is known — 50 percent of them in poor shape and in shallow water, blown shoreward during storms.

Underwater tourists can dive on about 1,000 Great Lakes wrecks, said Baillod, a reluctant recreational diver who sticks to shallow water.Some wrecks are reachable only by "technical" divers, such as Scoville, who safely dive in depths below 130 feet by breathing custom-mixed gases.

At 200 feet, the Etta Belle site is dangerous for just recreational divers, said Kennard, who leaves the deep dives to Scoville.To get that deep, Scoville filled his tanks with a carefully calculated mix of oxygen, helium, nitrogen and compressed air. At the deepest depths, he said, the helium wards off narcosis.

Scoville's dry suit was buffered from the cold with a layer of argon gas. And he had to pause at measured intervals to avoid death from the bends."You pay the price" in preparation — and risk — for diving deep, said Scoville, 31, and a five-year expert.

There's another reason not to dive on wrecks such as the Etta Belle, said Kennard: It's illegal to take anything from a historical wreck, which by law is owned by the state of New York. Artifacts are a temptation, he said — including what is likely still under the crushed cabin roof of the Etta Belle.

Last year, Scoville and Kennard found the Homer Warren, a Civil War-era Canadian bulk freighter that sank 85 years ago two miles off the coast of Pultneyville. It was the oldest wooden straight-deck bulk freighter operating in the Great Lakes.

Next for the team: They're not saying. That's true to form in the universe of secretive wreck divers, who specialize in search and research that only starts with public databases.

"We continue to look in areas that have a high priority for wrecks," said Kennard, who has mothballed his dive gear for the season. "Sometimes you look for one thing and stumble across another."

Photo Galleries:


On the Web:

For the story of the Etta Belle and a look at some images from the dive, go to:

For a broader view of Great Lakes shipwrecks and history, go to:

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