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By Bob Kostoff

A sudden gale stormed over Lake Ontario on a gloomy Halloween night in 1780, spelling doom for the ill-fated sloop Ontario and drowning nearly 90 souls on board.

The wreckage and human bones recline today deep in the lake-bottom silt somewhere between Fort Niagara and the Town of Somerset.

A trio of Olcott men thought they had discovered the wreckage in 1995, but last year two Rochester divers claimed they discovered the wreckage and the Olcott find was misinterpreted.

Ironically, the British warship went down in the general vicinity where explorer LaSalle's ship Frontenac sank on Jan. 8, 1679. No lives were lost in that incident, but LaSalle lost most of the material he was transporting to build the Griffon where Cayuga Creek flows into the Niagara River.

Although there were no survivors of the Ontario to tell of the horror of that night, many have speculated. The Ontario was en route from Fort Niagara to Carlton Island, located at the beginning of the Thousand Islands in the St. Lawrence River near present-day Kingston. Ont.

A great hurricane developed in October 1780 in the Caribbean. The British lost four ships to the hurricane (storms were not assigned names in that era) in the vicinity of St. Lucia and St. Vincent. Then Martinique was struck, and the French lost 40 ships there.

As today, the hurricane moved up the east coast and probably turned into a tropical storm when it hit land, but contained enough virulent energy to create a vicious Nor'easter storm. The Nor'easters are well known in this area for their sudden destructiveness.

Trying to make good time, the captain, J.A. Andrews, probably had full sails that night. Then the gentle southwest wind (the calm before the storm) suddenly gave way to the violent northwest gale. There were few on deck, with most settled below for a good night's sleep. Shouted orders most likely could not be heard over the screeching wind and driving rain pelting the sails and rigging.

Nevertheless, the captain may have tried to turn back toward Youngstown. But the gale-force winds likely struck the port bow or hit broadside, making the ship careen dangerously toward the water level, perhaps even capsizing the boat. The helmsman was thrown from the tiller. The massive cannons were smashed into the starboard side, breaking open the gun portals as water gushed into the hold.

Terrified passengers probably had only a few precious moments to realize they were facing a terrible death. Soon they were all under water.

This occurred during the Revolutionary War. General Washington had once sent a force to Quebec in an attempt to conquer Canada. Even though this foray, led by Benedict Arnold, was unsuccessful, the British were wary of another invasion up the St. Lawrence.

Thus they had the Ontario built to offer protection in Lake Ontario and on the St. Lawrence. It was built at the Carlton Island shipyard. At that time, it was the largest vessel on the Great Lakes, measuring 226 tons burthen and being 80 feet long on the lower deck. Overall, including the bowsprit, the length was 123 feet.

Although it was never in combat, the ship played a vital role in transporting goods and troops between Oswego and Fort Niagara. The ship was to pick up returning troops from the British raid in October 1780. The troopers, including an Indian detachment under Mohawk War Chief Joseph Brant, traveled from Oswego to Lake Onondaga, and then marched to the Schoharie River to attack Stone Arabia. The purpose was to destroy crops and tie up rebel forces.

When the troops returned, the Ontario was not at Oswego but was en route from Fort Niagara. The Indians and other of Butler's Rangers headed back to Fort Niagara in canoes and bateaux, staying close to the shore and landing to camp out each night.

Being on land, they survived the storm and continued the next day to Fort Niagara. They soon discovered the wreckage of four battered lifeboats, oars, blankets and clothing from the Ontario. They searched along the shoreline, but found no bodies. It wasn't until the next summer that six bodies washed up near the Town of Wilson and were buried there in unmarked graves.

On June 13, 2008, a public announcement came that Rochester residents Jim Kennard and Dan Scoville had discovered the Ontario wreckage. They would not disclose the location for fear of looters disturbing the find.

According to the organization Shipwreck World:

"The discovery of 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, N.Y., 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 (ROV) 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 HMS Ontario."

The Old Fort Niagara Association held a dinner last Sept. 20 in remembrance of the ship and heard talks by those involved in the discovery.

Kennard told us, "On Sept. 20, we held an HMS Ontario Discovery Dinner at Old Fort Niagara. It was sold out within a few days of its announcement to the membership of Old Fort Niagara. It was a fantastic evening with displays of the ROV, paintings of the HMS Ontario, a ship model of Ontario and artifacts from Carlton Island."

In August of 1995, Roderick Hedley, diver Richard Acer and Larry Bowman, all of Olcott, announced they believed they had discovered the Ontario wreckage, but this wreck had no masts. The wreckage discovered by Kennard and Scoville had masts intact and the telltale two crow's nests.

Kennard, in an e-mail to us, said the two discoverers have "selected the Mission Media Company of Toronto as our partner in the development of a TV documentary on HMS Ontario."

The production company announced:

"The Mission Media Company is proud to have been chosen by Jim Kennard and Dan Scoville as the exclusive production company to bring their story, and the story of HMS Ontario, to audiences in Canada, the USA and the world. We believe the incredible discovery, underwater footage of the ship and the rich story of life around Lake Ontario in 1780 holds the potential to illuminate the clash of two empires (Britain and France), the birth of two nations (United States and Canada) and the ongoing experience of a people struggling to stay alive (the Mohawk, Huron and Mississauga nations).

"We are honored to work on this project with Jim and Dan, and look forward to unifying a team of artists, filmmakers, TV and educational companies to bring this project to audiences in the very near future."

Details of construction of the warship, along with exact schematics, are found in the book "Legend of the Lake," by Arthur Britton Smith, published by Quarry Press, of Kingston, Ont., in 1997.

Bob Kostoff has been reporting on the Niagara Frontier for four decades. He is a recognized authority on local history and is the author of several books. E-mail him at RKost1@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com November 25 2008