ROVworld Subsea Information

Shipwreck explorers discover 1780 British warship in Lake Ontario
Date: Wednesday, June 18, 2008 @ 06:00:00 EDT
Topic: GENERAL NEWS


Shipwreck explorers discover 1780 British warship in Lake OntarioThe HMS Ontario, a British warship built in 1780 has been discovered in deep water off the southern shore of Lake Ontario. Shipwreck enthusiasts Jim Kennard and Dan Scoville located the ship utilizing sophisticated side scanning sonar and an underwater remote operated vehicle. The HMS Ontario is the oldest confirmed shipwreck and the only fully intact British warship to have ever been found in the Great Lakes.

HMS Ontario Founders

In the early evening hours of October 31, 1780, the British sloop of war HMS Ontario sank with over 120 men, women, children and prisoners on board during a sudden and violent gale. The Ontario had departed earlier in the day from Fort Niagara, near the western end of Lake Ontario, for Oswego and then on to Fort Haldimand located on Carleton Island in the St. Lawrence River. The following day some of the Ontario's boats, hatchway gratings, binnacle, compasses and several hats and blankets drifted ashore in the area that is known today as Golden Hill State Park, located 30 miles east of Fort Niagara in New York State. Following the reported loss of the Ontario, the British conducted a wide search of the area on land and water. A few days later only the ship's sails were found adrift in the lake. In late July 1781, six bodies from the Ontario were found approximately 12 miles east of the Niagara River near Wilson, NY. This was the extent of the items ever found from the ship until its recent discovery.

Built as a Sloop-of-War

Scroll Bow Stem of the HMS Ontario
Scroll Bow Stem of the HMS Ontario.
In October 1779, the work of building a new "brig sloop" began at the dockyard on Carleton Island. Six months later construction of this vessel was nearly completed and on May 10, 1780 it was launched and named HMS Ontario. The brig sloop was 80 feet long with a 25 foot beam and contained two masts with a length of over 80 feet. She had a "burthen weight" (tonnage capacity) of over 226 tons and carried 22 cannon on board. Throughout the summer of 1780 the Ontario transported troops, stores, and civilian merchandise around and across Lake Ontario, stopping at Niagara and Carleton Island frequently, in addition to regular visits to Oswego. During this period it never came under attack from the American forces. In late September 1780, the Ontario sailed from Carleton Island fully loaded with troops, Mohawk, Seneca, and Onondaga scouts, canoes, and supplies for Fort Niagara. The return trip back would be the last and a most fatal voyage.

Search for the HMS Ontario

The search for the Ontario began 35 years ago for Jim Kennard, however after several frustrating years of searching, he abandoned the quest for this ship. Six years ago he teamed up with Dan Scoville to search for shipwrecks off the southern shore of Lake Ontario. Since then the shipwreck explorers have been successful in locating seven ships in the lake. Obtaining good research regarding the sinking of a shipwreck is critical in determining its location. This time Kennard obtained documents from both the British and Canadian archives relating to the ship disaster before setting out with Scoville to find the HMS Ontario. Even with the best information available, it still took them 3 years and a search area that covered over 200 square miles of the lake before they found the ship.

The Discovery

The discovery of the HMS Ontario was made in early June utilizing sophisticated side scan sonar technology. The sonar imagery clearly shows a large sailing ship partially resting on one side, with two masts reaching up more than 70 feet above the lake bottom. The remains of two crow's nests on each mast provided good confirmation that the sunken ship would be the brig-sloop Ontario. The ship was found between Niagara and Rochester, NY in an area of the lake where the depth extends to more than 500 feet. Due to the depth limitations for diving on this shipwreck, an underwater remote operated vehicle with deep dive capability, developed by Scoville, was utilized to explore and confirm the identity of the ship. Kennard and Scoville have since notified the New York State Office of Historic Preservation of their discovery of the HMS Ontario.

Exploring the Shipwreck
Model of HMS Ontario located in the Maritime Museum in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. By Jim Kennard.
Model of HMS Ontario located in the Maritime Museum in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. By Jim Kennard.


In the deep depth where the Ontario lies there is no visible light to illuminate the ship. A remote operated vehicle with on-board cameras and high intensity lighting was deployed to bring back images of the sunken shipwreck. The schooner was found sitting upright on the bottom leaning over to one side. The masts are still in place rising up over 70 feet from the bottom. A portion of the bowsprit remains and just below it there is a beautifully carved scroll bow stem. Two of the cannons are visible in the bow area but they have come loose from their original positions. Two of the large anchors are clearly visible. One anchor is still secure in its original position and the other has dropped off to the side of the ship. The most characteristic feature of this ship are the quarter galleries that are located on either side of the stern area of the HMS Ontario. A quarter gallery is a kind of balcony with windows that are typically placed on the sides of the stern-castle, a high, tower-like structure at the back of a ship that housed the officers' quarters. Both quarter galleries are there with some of the window glass still in place. Under the ship's tiller rests one of the small cannons that had been mounted on the stern deck of the ship. A few deadeyes and pulley blocks can be seen lying about in the wreckage. Many of the belaying pins that were used to secure lines are still located on the rails of the ship. All of the hatch covers and skylights are gone leaving a slight opening to the deck below, however, the ROV was not able to penetrate into the lower deck due to the silt that has been deposited over the years.

Tales of Treasure and the Holy Grail

The HMS Ontario is considered to be one of the few "Holy Grail" shipwrecks in the Great Lakes. For years many divers and shipwreck hunters have searched the lake for the HMS Ontario without success. Authors of shipwreck books speculated and then wrote tales of payroll treasure that might be on board the Ontario. This was far from the actual truth as any payroll for the troops would have been coming from Carleton Island, not from Fort Niagara. The book "Legend of the Lake" written by author Arthur Britton Smith in 1997 chronicles the history of the HMS Ontario and provides an excellent treatise of the historical conditions between the British and the Americans during this period of time.

War Grave Site

The shipwreck of the HMS Ontario is still considered to be British Admiralty property. The official record of the number of people on board the Ontario when she sank included: 74 military personnel, 9 women and children, 4 Indians, and 1 civilian. There were no prisoners-of-war officially listed by the British, however, private correspondence by an individual living at Fort Niagara indicated that there may have been a total of 120 people on board the ship including about 30 American prisoners. The shipwreck site of the Ontario is considered to be a British war grave and therefore should remain forever undisturbed.

Documenting the Shipwreck

Jim Kennard and Dan Scoville with the ROV.
Jim Kennard and Dan Scoville with the ROV.


Multiple cameras located on the underwater remote operated vehicle were utilized to document the condition of the ship providing over 80 minutes of color and black & white video imagery. There has been sufficient video documentation obtained so that it will never be necessary to return to the shipwreck site again. Kennard and Scoville plan to contact several TV production groups that may be interested in developing an historic program about the HMS Ontario. In addition, they are considering the possibility of hosting a local dinner to premiere the showing of this historic shipwreck discovery.

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. Guy Morin assisted the in the research of the Ontario from reports that were documented in the Haldimand papers from the National Archives of Canada located in Ottawa. 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 disappear over time. It is very important to do the research prior to conducting an expensive shipwreck search, especially when a ship may have actually been saved or salvaged later on. Once a ship is found, all efforts are made to confirm its name and history.

Lake Ontario Shipwrecks

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 fewer than 200 ships have actually been lost in the lake and there have only been a few notable shipwreck discoveries off the southern shore of Lake Ontario. Because lake depths often exceed several hundred feet just a few miles out 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. For additional information, images, and to view a short video of the shipwreck of the HMS Ontario, visit the website: www.shipwreckworld.com

Shipwreck Discovery Team

Jim Kennard has been diving and exploring the lakes in the northeast since 1970. He 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. Using his background as an electrical engineer, he built the side scan sonar system that located these shipwrecks. In 1983 he discovered a unique horse powered ferryboat in Lake Champlain. National Geographic featured the ferryboat in their October 1989 issue. Several other of his shipwreck discoveries have been reported in various publications including Skin Diver, Inland Seas, and Sea Technology.

Dan Scoville is an experienced cave and "technical" diver who utilizes custom gas mixtures of oxygen, helium, and nitrogen to dive to depths of over 300 feet. In 2005, Dan led the development of an Underwater Remote Operated Vehicle with a team of college seniors from the Rochester Institute of Technology. Since then he has used his ROV to explore shipwrecks in Lake Ontario and to locate the bodies of three hunters from a lost Seabee Republic aircraft in Lac Simon, Quebec. He is currently the project manager and electrical engineer for the Remote Operated Vehicle product line at HydroAcoustics Inc.

Shipwreck Team Artist

Roland (Chip) Stevens is a retired architect and working artist whose artwork is well known in the Rochester area and 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. He has created paintings of the some of the recently discovered Lake Ontario shipwrecks that have appeared in various news stories and publications.

icon_vid  Watch video of the HMS Ontario shipwreck







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