Rochester, New York - The shattered remains of the Onondaga, a mid 1800’s paddle-wheeler, have been located in the deep depths of Seneca Lake south of Geneva, New York. A team of shipwreck enthusiasts, Jim Kennard, Roger Pawlowski, and Hans Daatselaar, located the old steamer while searching for sunken wrecks in the lake.
A Never to be Forgotten Spectacle
By 1898 the old paddle-wheeler had outlived its usefulness. It was decided to create a grand spectacular event that would emulate the blowing up of the US Battleship Maine in the harbor of Havana, Cuba earlier that year. It would be the end and total destruction of the steamer Onondaga which had been in service hauling freight and passengers back and forth the 38 mile length of Seneca Lake for over 35 years. Flyers publicizing the momentous occasion were sent out all over to towns in New York and Pennsylvania. It was billed as “A Never to be Forgotten Spectacle” and promoted to be the grandest, most spectacular exhibition ever offered the American public where columns of water and tons of wood and steel would be hurled hundreds of feet into the air. .
People came to watch the event by trains that were specially scheduled from Rochester, Syracuse, Watkins Glen, Ithaca, Lyons and all points in between. There was a full day of events with several bands playing and a hot air balloon ascension. The Onondaga with flags flying was transported to the final anchorage with a display of fireworks and fire balloons from the deck, followed by setting the ship on fire and then the explosion. More fireworks were displayed that evening in the town of Geneva. It was estimated that well over 5000 people were in attendance lining both shores of Seneca Lake to watch the explosion. It was a day to be remembered by all.
To assure the complete destruction of the Onondaga, 500 pounds of dynamite and 300 pounds of blasting powder were distributed in all parts of the ship along with a barrel of gasoline. At 1 PM the steamer was towed down the lake about 8 miles and anchored equally distant from the east and west shores. At Kashong, or Holcomb’s Point, people waited to view the big event. Finally at 4:30 PM a shot from a gun signaled that the explosion would take place. Everyone turned to look at the steamer as three tongues of flame shot out from the steamer followed by pieces of debris flying out at all angles from the ship. A dense mushroom cloud of yellow smoke rushed upward into the air reaching a height of over 500 feet. The Onondaga immediately became enveloped in a dome-like mass of dense smoke which prevented any view of the ship. A light breeze from the south slowly blew the smoke cloud northward passed the area where the steamer had been anchored. By then, the ship had disappeared beneath the waters of Seneca Lake. There was only one large piece of smoldering wreckage remaining on the lake. For several days small pieces of the Onondaga could be found scattered on the lake.
Steamer built in 1860
The steamer, built in 1860 as a towboat, was originally named the Perez H. Fields. During the Civil War the steamer became a troop boat carrying soldiers from the region to Watkins Glen where the soldiers then made their way to Elmira and points south. In 1870 the renowned boat builder, Bruce Springstead, rebuilt the steamer for the Seneca Lake Navigation Company and renamed the ship the Onondaga. She was175 feet long by 27 feet wide with a hull 9 feet deep. The Onondaga was powered by a 350 horse power walking beam engine. A cabin and top deck were added to transform the ship into a passenger steamer. At a speed between 12 to 14 miles per hour the Onondaga travelled the length of Seneca Lake in less than 3 ½ hours. The steamer ran until 1895 when it was taken out of service. In June of 1898 it served as an isolation ward, better known at that time as a “pest house”, for a group of actors quarantined due to smallpox. The ship was outfitted by the town of Geneva to feed and house the group during their period of isolation.
The Discovery - 2 year long wait
In the summer of 2010 Jim Kennard, Roger Pawlowski and Hans Daatselaar were searching for shipwrecks in the deep areas of Seneca Lake when the faint image of a large shipwreck appeared on the sonar screen. Previous research by Daatselaar indicated that the wreck was most likely that of the steamer Onondaga. In mid August 2012, Kennard and Pawlowski returned to the site of the shipwreck with a high resolution side scan sonar system with deep depth capability made by DeepVision in Sweden. This special system provides an image created by sonar that appears almost like an aerial photograph. The depth of the shipwreck is in approximately 400 feet (121 meters) of water just north of Kashong Point and 8 miles south of Geneva, New York. The depth is way beyond the reasonable limits for SCUBA divers.
Surveying the remains of the Steamer Onondaga
Obtaining detailed images of a shipwreck in deep depths requires a very long cable that tethers a torpedo shaped body called a ‘towfish’ where the sonar sensors are located. The towfish is towed behind the survey boat and close to the bottom near the shipwreck. The sonar imagery revealed that what remains of the wreck is essentially the outline of an open hull having the exact measurements of the steamer Onondaga. The upper structure of the ship has been completely blown away and the hull has settled into the soft bottom with only a few sections protruding 4 or 5 feet above the bottom. The pointed bow area rises up 5 or 6 feet whereas the stern end is barely visible. It may be that the ship landed stern first on the lake bottom and dug itself into the sediment. All the machinery had been previously removed. In the mid-section of the ship are the remains of the heavy structural beams that supported the engine and walking beam of the ship. One long piece, probably part of the side of the ship, protrudes from the starboard side at a 45 degree angle out to almost even with the bow. Other small pieces can be seen out and around the periphery of the wreck.
Historic Shipwrecks in New York State waters
Historic shipwrecks abandoned and embedded in New York State underwater lands belong to the People of the State of New York and are protected by state and federal law from unauthorized disturbance.
Shipwreck Discovery Team
Jim Kennard has been diving and exploring the lakes in the northeast since 1970. He has found over 200 shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, Lake Champlain, NY Finger Lakes and in the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers over the past 35 years. In 1983 he discovered a unique horse powered ferryboat in Lake Champlain. National Geographic featured the ferryboat in their October 1989 issue. In May 2008 Jim Kennard and Dan Scoville discovered the British warship HMS Ontario, the oldest shipwreck ever found in the Great Lakes, and in late September 2008 a rare 200 year old "dagger-board" schooner. Both discoveries received worldwide attention in the news
Roger Pawlowski has been diving on shipwrecks in the northeast and Florida for the past 12 years. He is a retired Air Force Reserve pilot and flew missions in Desert Storm. In 1980 while flying a practice mission over Lake Ontario he witnessed a small aircraft plunge into the lake. His details of the incident and location helped Kennard locate the aircraft which was several miles from shore and in over 100 feet underwater. Pawlowski is an electrical engineer and runs his own engineering consultant business.
Hans Daatselaar a certified SCUBA diver and a professional tug boat captain became fascinated in the story of the steamer Onondaga and provided the research that identified the deep shipwreck that the team located in Seneca Lake.
Shipwreck Team Artist
Roland ‘Chip’ Stevens is a retired architect and working artist whose watercolors are well known in the Rochester area, many of which have been accepted into national exhibitions. A sailor for many years, Stevens has a love of the sea, as reflected in his seascapes. A number of his paintings of shipwrecks discovered by the team have appeared in various news stories and publications. Chip has created a sketch of what the Steamer Onondaga may have looked like at the instant of the explosion on Seneca Lake.