Discovery of an Early 1800’s Schooner in Lake Ontario

An early 1800’s schooner has been discovered in deep water off the southern shore of Lake Ontario near Oak Orchard, New York.

Oak Orchard, New York - An early 1800’s schooner, has been discovered in deep water off the southern shore of Lake Ontario near Oak Orchard / Point Breeze, New York. Shipwreck enthusiasts, Jim Kennard and Dan Scoville located the old schooner utilizing sophisticated side scanning sonar equipment.

The Discovery

The discovery of the schooner was made the summer of 2005. The side scan sonar record clearly showed an image of a sailing ship with the masts still standing. This condition was unusual because typically, over a period of time, the masts fall off to the side of the ship or are pulled off when they are visible above water. The shipwrecked schooner was found in deep water, well beyond the limits (135 feet) for recreational SCUBA divers. Due to the depth limitations for diving, the shipwreck explorers were unable to view their discovery for the remainder of that season. Scoville was determined to view this shipwreck discovery and would lead a project in the Fall of 2005 to create a Remote Operated Vehicle to do the underwater exploration.

Exploring the shipwreck

The schooner is sitting evenly on the bottom with both masts still in place and rising up approximately 70 feet above the lake bottom. The masts go though the deck of the ship which is all that keeps them in place as all of the rigging and sails have long since disintegrated. Deadeyes and pulley blocks can be seen lying on the deck in various places. Just under the bowsprit there is a scroll bow stem, almost taking on the appearance of a very plain figurehead. Upon close inspection, the scroll stem did not appear to have any other markings or ornamentation. Both of the anchors are still firmly in place on either side of the ship near the bow with their chain wound up on tightly on the windless. There are two openings to the hold of the ship. Both hatch covers were found to have been slid open to allow entrance to the openings in the hold, which is almost completely filled with silt. A double common bilge pump is located next to the main mast. The ship’s cabin is still standing, but pieces of the roof were found scattered nearby. This condition provided an easy access to view the interior of the cabin area. There appear to be several feet of silt inside but no visible indication of the contents of the cabin. Two windows are in the rear of the cabin and two smaller windows are on each side of the center companionway. A small cabinet can be seen secured to the rear wall between the two windows. A large tiller is located at the stern of the ship, with the long handle finding its last position to the rail on the starboard side. The stern railing curves upward at its center most point. The schooner has a square stern that is sloped forward, slightly angled at its base. In this area, the faint remains of a large raised oval decorative detail can be seen. The name of the schooner probably was painted in this area. The entire ship is encrusted with Zebra or Quadra mussels, but this +160-year-old wooden shipwreck, is one of the most beautiful, fully intact, commercial schooners that we have seen off the shores of Lake Ontario.

Shipwreck Detectives

To search for and identify a potential shipwreck, more time is actually spent on land going though old newspapers on microfilm and conferring with shipwreck historians than on the lake searching. Ships that get caught in a storm become very broken up, the nameplate may become lost in the wreckage or the painted name on a ship can end up disappearing over time. It is very important to do the research prior to conducting a shipwreck search, which can become very expensive, especially when chasing after a ship that may have actually been saved or salvaged later on. Once a ship is found, all efforts are made to confirm its name and history.

Over the course of many months during the 2006 summer and fall, Kennard was in contact with a number of shipwreck historians concerning unique characteristics relating to the age of this schooner. He also consulted with several individuals who have developed Great Lakes shipwreck databases.

The schooner that Jim and Dan located did not have an observable name painted on the stern of the ship, but there were other features that determined the probable time of construction. This schooner has a tiller. By the 1850’s steerage by a tiller all but disappeared to be replaced by full steering gear and a ship’s wheel. A scroll bow stem (a convex shaped bow just under the bowsprit) has been seen on some 1830s /1840s schooners, versus a convex contour shaped bow. The stern is an older design also placing this vessel in the 1840’s period.

A search through the shipwreck databases provided one possible candidate that matched the general location where the ship was found and had the same measurements as the sunken ship. This was the schooner “Milan”. Further confirmation was obtained from the ship’s enrollment papers. The Milan was built in 1845 by shipbuilder Asa Wilcox at Three-Mile Bay near Pt. Peninsula on Lake Ontario. She was a two-masted schooner with a beam of 19 ft 8 in. and 93 ft in length and had a square stern.

The shipwrecked schooner was found to be headed directly to shore and not to the nearest port. There was no observable damage to the ship indicating that they were not in a storm or in a collision with another ship. Also the yawl was missing. These were all indications that the crew left the ship because it had developed a significant leak and was sinking fast.

More clues to link this ship to that of the schooner Milan were provided by several shipwreck historians and divers from the Great Lakes area. They indicated that the shipwrecked schooner Oxford, which sank and is located in Lake Erie, also had a scroll bow stem and a tiller. The Oxford was built in 1848 by the same shipbuilder, Asa Wilcox.

Loss of the Schooner Milan

The schooner Milan was operating during the period from 1845 to 1849. She was on record as having transported goods such as corn, flour, wheat, salt, and lumber to ports on Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. On an October morning in 1849 the schooner Milan sailed from Oswego with a crew of nine men, bound for Cleveland, with a cargo of 1000 barrels of salt. Very early the next morning, the men, who were asleep in the forecastle, were awakened by the splashing of water around them. They awoke to see eighteen inches of water covering the floor. Two men immediately took to the pumps while the others commenced to remove the salt cargo from the forward hold. Meanwhile, the water continued to gain on them. The Milan was turned directly south in an effort to run the schooner ashore. However the winds were southerly and little headway could be made. Finally, in desperation, the crew abandoned the ship and took to the yawl boat, just in time before the she disappeared below the waves of Lake Ontario. Fortunately, a passing schooner observed the incident and took the crew on board and brought them to the port of Rochester.

At the time of the disaster, the Captain of the Milan had on board the schooner a fine Newfoundland dog, which was carried down by the waters as they overtook the ship as she sank. Shortly afterwards the Newfoundland rose to the surface, swam to the yawl, and was finally saved.

Remote Operated Vehicle developed to explore the deep underwater environment

Many of the shipwrecks off of the southern shoreline of Lake Ontario are located in deep water. Diving to these depths limits the amount of time one can spend on the bottom and the deep dive costs are great. Dan Scoville determined that the most effective way to view shipwreck discoveries in this area was to create an underwater Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) to do the exploring. In the Fall of 2005 he sponsored and led one of the most ambitious and challenging Rochester Institute of Technology senior projects ever, to build a ROV for underwater exploration

The small, 60-pound, battery-powered Remote Operated Vehicle was designed and built within a period of 6 months. It is equipped with up to four removable video cameras, four high-intensity lamps, a navigational compass, a timer, and sensors to measure depth, pressure and temperature. Four variable-speed motors enable vertical, forward and reverse movement and turning maneuverability. The RIT students custom-built most of the circuit boards, wrote the software, and created the graphical user interface used to control the ROV. All components are housed in watertight canisters; the lightweight aluminum frame is rugged and easily modified for future accessories. It presently has the capability to stay at depth for over 1 ½ hours. The ROV is tethered to a laptop computer by a 680-foot-long fiber-optic cable and controlled movement by utilizing a joystick. The operator sees what the ROV encounters underwater through the video on the laptop computer screen. Future enhancements may include the addition of a mechanical arm and extended diving capability – perhaps enabling the explorer to reach Lake Ontario’s maximum depth of about 800 feet. To learn more about this ROV go and click on ROV Project.

A unique shipwreck discovery for this area of Lake Ontario

There are estimated to have been over 4700 shipwrecks in the Great Lakes with approximately 500 occurring on Lake Ontario. Many of these ships were wrecked in a harbor or were driven on-shore where they were pounded to pieces. Probably less than 200 ships have actually been lost in the lake. There have only been a few notable shipwreck discoveries off the southern shore of Lake Ontario. The lake depths often exceed several hundred feet just a few miles from the southern shoreline. Shipwrecks that are located in these depths are beyond the range of recreational divers and require costly search and support ship equipment to find them. It is believed that this early 1800’s schooner may be the oldest commercial vessel to have been found off the southern shore of Lake Ontario that has not been salvaged or wrecked near shore. She is among one of the older schooners still in existence in the Great Lakes. For additional information, images, and video go our website:

Shipwreck enthusiasts team

Jim Kennard is a certified SCUBA diver and has found over 200 shipwrecks in the Great Lakes and Inland Waterways over the past 30 years. Using his background as an electrical engineer, he built the side scan sonar system that was utilized to locate the schooner and many other ships. In 1983, Kennard, with partner Scott Hill, discovered a unique Horse Powered Ferryboat in Lake Champlain. National Geographic featured the ferryboat in their October 1989 issue.

Dan Scoville is an experienced cave and "technical" diver. He utilizes custom gas mixtures of oxygen, helium, and nitrogen to dive to depths of over 300 feet. Scoville is an electrical engineer and lead the development of the Underwater Remote Operated Vehicle utilized to capture images of deep water shipwrecks.

Roland (Chip) Stevens is a retired architect and working artist whose artwork is well known in the Rochester area and which has been accepted into numerous national exhibitions. A sailor for many years, Stevens has a love of the sea, as reflected in his seascape watercolor paintings. Chip created the sketch of the schooner as she rests today on the bottom of Lake Ontario.




anonymous by Bill Leggett on 6/14/2008
I'm glad you found the wreck of the HMS Ontario, and I am sure you have the best of intentions about saving the ship.
I do not agree that the wreck should be left on the bottomwhere it will be gone one day with ever being shown to the public. it should be raised and restored for the public to see up close and to get a real look at her. by simply saying mess like it's a war grave is a cop out. most of the sailors ..and I'm sure all of the captive Americans, did not want this to be their resting place.
with the waters of the great lakes getting warmer every year it will not be long before wood eating sea creatures get to it. then you gotta ad the chance of ships dragging anchors, and pollution, this ship will be gone and the only thing we'll have to rember her by is pictures you took of stuff that you think was worth looking at, and leave out very interesting things that that sailors used in everyday life, or stuff that others will find very interesting. we know this ship was never used in battle, and that makes it a very far reach to claim it a war relic. if that is the case then we should leave every wrecked humvee on the side of the road if it happened during a war time. if you want to talk about respect, what about respecting the wishes of the widows and parents and children who wanted to have their family burried beside them?
anonymous by Raise The Ship? Open Access! on 6/20/2008
Raising a vessel is an incredibly costly operation. However, in some cases the educational and cultural benefits justify the expense. Whether The HMS Ontario would be worth such an undertaking is debatable. Nonetheless, I was struck by the elitist attitude declaring that the site should never be disturbed again. This is akin to the first person to climb a peak demanding that no others be allowed the ascent for the sake of that first climbers glory. Rationalizing that position by declaring it a "war grave" site is facetious at best and certainly self-serving in the extreme. The original RoV team understood she was a "war grave" before descending and, yet, felt no compunction against disturbing the site for their own gain. While we may not see this vessel raised in our lifetimes, I am hopeful that many more visits, from parties other than this team, will take place in the future.
anonymous by chris kidwell on 9/8/2008

I have an tintype photo of a sea captain or a sailor possibly from the 1840's 0r 50's. It appears to have taken from an older photo possibly a Dag. type photo. This image is quite striking and very clear. It has a Rochester NY Photographer, Sunrise Gallery. This seaman could have been lost at sea or on Lake Ontario, Some one may be able to ID this image. I hope someone can help. My e-mail is

anonymous by Bster on 3/22/2011
anonymous by Patrick Dougherty on 6/13/2012
Your article finding the sunken schooner Milan states that she sank in October 1849. A news item dated 5-30-68, indicates that my Great Grandfather Thomas Dolan, Captain of the Schooner Milan, was crushed to death by falling stone being unloaded the previous day. The unloading was at the foot of Seventeenth street, North river.
Would this have been a successor schooner Milan built some time after the sinking of the first.

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