Monday, August 06, 2007

 

LAKE ONTARIO: Team finds 19th century schooner preserved near Oak Orchard Harbor

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The Journal-Registar
By Molly Coats
August 06, 2007


Finding shipwrecks and having an adventure usually reserved for sea-faring divers is not so far-fetched for western New York, as researchers Jim Kennard and Dan Scoville have discovered.

The duo recently found a 19th century schooner, possibly the oldest found to date, resting at the bottom of Lake Ontario off Oak Orchard Harbor in Point Breeze. According to Kennard, the discovery of the Milan was exciting because the ship is in relatively decent shape for having been at the bottom of a lake for nearly 160 years.

“The masts are still attached to the ship,” he said. “Usually they break off and fall next to the ship.”

Kennard and Scoville have been working together for several years trying to find the Milan as well as discovering other ships in the area. Some of the team’s Lake Ontario finds include the Homer Warren and the Etta Belle. All of these discoveries took years of researching and trying to determine where the ships were located based on reports and old news stories, according to Kennard.

“Trying to find a wreck in Lake Ontario is like trying to find the tip of a pencil eraser in a football field at the rate of two square feet per day,” he said. “You have to be a shipwreck detective to come up with a general area of where the ship is. We’d been searching for (the Milan) for a couple years.”

Once the ship was found in 2005 using a side scan sonar method, Kennard and Scoville began planning their exploration. One of the biggest obstacles the team faced was the depth at which the Milan laid, said Scoville.

“It was too deep to safely send a diver down,” he said. “There are a lot of risks with technical diving and once you reach the bottom, you can only spend 10 or 15 minutes searching the wreck.”

To continue their research, the team needed a way to take pictures and video without placing any lives in danger. Scoville, who was a senior at the Rochester Institute of Technology at the time, said he took the opportunity to create a Remotely Operated Vehicle as his senior project with the help of some of his fellow students.

“The ROV can stay at the bottom taking video for hours a day,” he said. “It was expensive to create at first, but after that it cost a lot less than technical diving.”

According to Scoville, the ROV is a small device with multiple cameras and high-intensity lights attached to it in air-tight containers. The device is attached to a 680-foot-long fiber-optic cable which sends images to a laptop computer. Researchers can operate the device via remote control in the safety of their boat, eliminating the risks of diving.

Upon graduating from RIT, Scoville sold the intellectual properties of the ROV to Henrietta-based company Hydroacoustics, Inc. Scoville now works for the company developing the next generation of ROVs.

With the means to explore the wreck available in summer of 2006, the team began their research. The images sent back by the ROV proved to be valuable as Kennard and Scoville discovered how unique the Milan was to Lake Ontario’s southern shores.

“The ship had a tiller, whereas most ships after 1850 had a wheel and a rudder,” Kennard said. “This gave us a better idea of how old the ship was, which helped us make a better case that this was in fact the Milan.”

Other features helping the team determine they had found the Milan included a scroll bow, which Kennard said is unique to ships of the time period. Kennard said he knew of one other ship, called the Oxford, found in Lake Erie, that had the same type of bow. The ship was built by Asa Wilcox and based on the comparison of bows, the team was able to definitely say the Milan was also built by Wilcox at Three-Mile Bay in 1845, according to Kennard.

“There is no name plate on the Milan,” he said. “Sometimes they paint the name on but it comes off. We sent for enrollment papers that give information on when the ship was built, where it’s been and all the specifics, and this helped us make all these conclusions.”

After releasing the Milan story, Kennard was contacted by representatives of the Salt Museum in Liverpool, N.Y. The museum was interested in the ship because it had been carrying 1,000 barrels of salt when it sank. Kennard said they did not find any barrels of salt because the crew tossed them overboard before abandoning the schooner.

Based on records and the condition of the wreckage, Kennard said the team concluded that the ship had sprung a leak during a voyage in 1849 and the crew changed direction in an attempt to run ashore. The leak could not be found and the crew was forced to abandon ship, letting it sink.

All of the information and images gathered during the exploration allowed team artist Roland “Chip” Stevens to come up with a sketch of how the schooner looks in its current condition. He will also be able to make a rough sketch of what the ship looked like during the four years it was in service, according to Kennard.

“You don’t have photographs of ships like this from when they were built, so being able to bring back images of what they looked like is something special,” he said.

As for the future of the ship, Scoville said the team’s work is basically finished. Any further research would require approval from New York state to do an archaeological survey, which costs much more than anything they have done so far.

“Obviously the more you look the more likely you are to notice things you didn’t see before,” Scoville said. “We’ve concluded our investigation, so the Milan will probably stay right where it is for now.”


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