Oswego, NY: At approximately 4:40am on the night of November 17th 1879 the crew of the dredge Gordon fought for their lives in a Lake Ontario gale. Few lived to tell the tale of the last moments before the barge turned on its side and sank in deep water.
Earlier that day a small fleet of boats gathered in Cape Vincent, NY with plans to make for Sacket Harbor for the night. The fleet consisted of 5 tug boats, three dredges and 10 scows. Two of the scows also had lifting derricks on them. Tug Seymour of Ogdensburg was in the lead with the 3 dredges in tow followed by the ten scows. The 4 other tugs, tug Chase M. Riter, tug A.O. Thayer, tug Philip Becker, and tug John Hickler spaced themselves out and assisted the Seymour in pulling the tow out into the lake. The fleet belonged to Hicker & Arnold Company of Buffalo and was returning from work on the Lachine Canal system in Montreal.
Fateful Decision to Make for Oswego
The Fleet passed Tibbets Light around 2:00pm with the intention of making for Sacketts Harbor for the evening. This changed when tug Becker pulled alongside the tug Seymour and Mr. Arnoald, a junior partner with the company, called out to Captain Fleming with orders to make for Oswego some 30 miles past Galloo light. Captain Fleming complied and set course for the open lake.
The Fleet Breaks Up
The weather remained fair until around 8:00pm when the winds picked up and started to blow at gale force. By this time the fleet was mid lake with nowhere to hide from the raging waves and blowing snow. In these conditions it did not take long for the tow lines to be stretched beyond their limits. One of the first lines to break was the line between Dredge Gordon and the rest of the fleet. Tug Seymour drove on unaware of the chaos behind them.
The first boat to run into problems was tug A.O. Thayer. The Thayer was the smallest boat in the fleet and therefore the most vulnerable in the huge waves. As the tug swamped she came along side dredge John Hickler No1 and the crew escaped a watery grave by jumping to the dredge just before the Thayer plunged beneath the waves.
Around 9:00pm the tug Philip Becker stuck the stern of dredge Gordon and sprung a plank causing water to stream into the Gordon. Fireman Thomas Smith on the Gordon went below deck and tried to stem the flow of water by stuffing clothing into the cracks. When this was unsuccessful he came back on deck only to be ordered below again by Mr. Arnold and told to stuff his underclothing into the cracks as well. Thomas Smith went below again and did the best he could until the water raised him to the deck and put out his light. After that they cut a hole in the floor of the fire hole and used pails to bail out water.
Tug Becker came alongside dredge Gordon again around midnight and called out “We are swamping!” Efforts were made to secure a line to the tug without success and the crew of tug Becker jumped from the Tug to Dredge Gordon. Tug Becker was swallowed by the waves alongside dredge Gordon sinking in deep water.
Despite all efforts to keep dredge Gordon clear she listed over and water flooded into the engine room door. Efforts were made to hail tug Seymour but wind and snow prevented the tug from seeing their distress. At this time there were 9 cold souls on dredge Gordon. The first to go were Mr. Arnold and Patrick Eagan. They were standing close together near the stern of the dredge when a large wave came over and they were carried away. Next Mr. Palmer and his wife were swept off the dredge by a large wave in spite of the best efforts of Fireman Smith to hold onto them. Billy and Sam Logan held out for about 15 minutes more before they were too cold to hang on and Lake Ontario claimed two more victims. Daylight was starting to break and tug Seymour abandoned the tow line and came stern on to pick up the remaining 3 seaman left on the Gordon. Only fireman Smith was still able to help himself. Charles and Neal Hanthan were both unconscious and frothing from the mouth.
Over the next day many of the scows and dredges were found ashore between Oswego and Sodus bay. Of the 31 persons that sailed on the fleet only the 6 on the Gordon lost their lives.
Dredge Gordon Is Found
On July 5th 2012 a team consisting of Dan Scoville and Chris Koberstein were using side scan sonar to search the bottom of Lake Ontario for lost shipwrecks. It was 1:22 AM when the boat’s fish finder showed a large object protruding about 20ft off the lake bottom directly under the boat. I would only be a short wait until the sonar, some 2000ft behind the boat, would pass the wreck giving us a better idea of what was on the bottom. The image the sonar generated was that of a large vessel that was over on its starboard side, boxy in appearance and very intact.
On July 7, 2012 the lake was calm and Chris lowered the remote operated vehicle (ROV) into the lake while Dan took the controls. After a fifteen minute decent the ROV landed on a featureless bottom a few hundred feet away from the wreck. Dan turned on the sector scanning sonar to locate the wreck and navigate the ROV to it. A few short minutes later the ROV’s lights Illuminated the wooden hull of the dredge Gordon not seen since 1879.
The Gordon is on its starboard side about half sunk in the silty bottom. Quagga mussels form a thin cover on the wreck but the individual deck boards can still be seen in many places. The spuds used to stabilize the Gordon while it worked are in their retracted position as one would expect them to be during a lake transit. At the bow there is a gangway that traverses the front of the Gordon. This is where the forward door to the cabin is located. The door is gone but the cabin is intact. The ROV was piloted up to the forward cabin door for a look inside. On the far wall of the cabin looking aft two other doorways can be seen leading further into the bowels of the dredge. The lower side of the cabin is full of the internal walls and furniture that have collapsed and fallen after more than a century underwater.
On the port side of the dredge there is a row of windows stretching down the length of the ship. By the side of each window there is a set of shutters that can be closed to ward off the waves. On the stern of the dredge there is a large opening making it easy for the ROV to penetrate the wreck. Dan cautiously flew the ROV inside while Chris kept a tight leash on the ROV’s fiber optic tether so it would not get caught in the wreckage. This area appears to hold the ships machinery. Pipes and boards are strewn around in a jumbled mess creating numerous entanglement hazards for the ROV.
After about an hour flying around the dredge Gordon it was time to bring the ROV back to the surface. Dan piloted the ROV slowly away from the Gordon as Chris pulled the tether back in the boat. A short time later the ROV was safely back on the surface and the Gordon’s final resting place and condition was documented.
During a further search of the lake nearby the dredge Gordon wreck site, a scow was found. Measuring 80ft long and 17ft in beam the scow sits upright on the featureless bottom. Instead of valuable cargo the hold now contains deep silt with a light cover of quagga mussels. The stout bollard on the bow sits ready to be lashed to any passing tug willing to put out is line.
It is possible that this unidentified scow was one of the many scows behind the Gordon that November night in 1879. The November 21, 1879 edition of the Oswego Palladium lists the losses to the fleet as 2 tugs, 1 dredge, 2 derricks, and 10 scows with a total value of about $39,000. Most of the scows drifted down the lake or ended on the shore. Some were recovered in the days that followed the accident and others were total losses.
Whether this scow went down in a raging blizzard with gale force winds or succumbed to a slow leak and quietly sunk beneath the waves will likely never be known. The high cost of exploration in deep water mean that this scow may never be fully explored and we will be left to wonder about its last moments on the lake forever.
The Discovery Team
Dan Scoville is an experienced cave and technical diver. In 2005, Dan led the development of an Underwater Remote Operated Vehicle with a team of college seniors from the Rochester Institute of Technology. He is currently a project manager and electrical engineer for Oceaneering International in Houston, TX.
Chris Koberstein is an experienced cave, technical and rebreather diver. Chris uses sophisticated rebreather diving equipment to explore depths to over 300 feet. Chris works as an aviation maintenance technician with Air Canada.