Wednesday, April 12, 2006




The Palladium Times
By Sean Treacy
April 10, 2006

While many adore the Great Lakes for their surfaces and shores, in the murky deep of Lake Ontario there's a treasure trove of history hidden away from casual observers.

For the tenth straight year on Saturday, about 85 underwater adventurers from around the Great Lakes Region gathered at SUNY Oswego to hear the stories and findings of the experts who study shipwrecks and other artifacts lost to the bottoms of the lakes.

The event, called Great Lakes Underwater, was put together by the Oswego Maritime Foundation and New York Sea Grant.

Author and explorer Cris Kohl's face lit up with excitement as he spoke about the 1917 sinking of the George A. Marsh, which was sailing to Kingston, Ontario from Oswego.

Newspapers at the time reported that two out of 14 people survived. But they were wrong, said Kohl. Unbeknownst to almost everybody, Captain John Smith, who lost most of his children and wife in the sinking, survived and went into hiding.

“It's a very dramatic story,” said Kohl, “and here's the clincher: When the captain survived the sinking, he got as far away from water as possible.”

Kohl said the captain was traumatized and fled to Oklahoma to quietly start a new life. Just before he died, he divulged the truth of his former life to a friend, and a search began to find his two remaining children to be heirs to his estate.

His daughter, Margaret Smith, living in Canada, wasn't even aware that her father had lived. Ironically, she'd married one of the George A. Marsh's other two survivors.

The shipwreck is now a popular diving site 83 feet under water in Lake Ontario's northeastern quadrant. It was found in 1967 and its bowsprit is still standing, according to Kohl.

“This is one of my favorites, absolutely, not only because of the shipwreck but because of the emotional story,” said Kohl.

Another historical author, Frederick Stonehouse, spoke on prohibition-era crime on the great lakes. His presentation was called “Rum Running and Red Lights.”

Oswego, he said, was a notorious area for illegal alcohol business. Ships in the Port City, he said, used to carry “booze by the boatload.”

“This was a notorious area. You guys were not evangelist Christians going to church every day,” said Stonehouse. “It was wide open and certainly a center for the rum running trade.”

Christopher Sabick, a marine archeologist for the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Vermont, spoke on the Revolutionary War Battle of Valcour Island, in which 11 American ships were downed.

There's an ongoing survey of the underwater surface of the battle site, he said, and they have found many canon balls from the conflict. They plan to map the bottom of the lake with sonar to identify shipwrecks.

“It was technically a defeat for the American forces, though it stalled the invasion of the British for a whole year down the Hudson,” said Sabick. “Because of that the American forces were able to assemble and deal with them at Saratoga the following year.”

Maritime Foundation President Phil Church asked the audience how many returning members they had, and almost everyone raised their hands.

“That's one of the things that tell us we're doing it right,” Church said.

Church said they try to change the presenters each year to offer variety, though some come back every two or three years if they're popular enough.


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