Kingston Wrecks

brief report by Peter Johnson

Last weekend (May 21, 2000) I was able to get in 3 days of diving in Lake Ontario off of Kingston and thought I would give a brief report on the state of the wrecks, zebra mussels, and efforts for protection of the wrecks by the area sport divers.

The wrecks that I dove were:

Two masted schooner barge. Length 173ft, 521 gross tons. Built 1888, foundered while under tow in 1913. 

City of Sheboygan 
3 masted schooner. Length 135ft, 261 gross tons. Built 1871. Lost in a gale in 1915. 

Side wheel paddle wheeler. Length 174ft, 336 tons. Built 1848, sunk in a collision with the schooner Exchange in 1861. 

Comet photo by Gary Thibault

Steam Dredge that sank while under tow in 1890. Think of her as a steam shovel on a barge.

Condition of the wrecks:

All of the wrecks were in a well preserved state as would be expected in cold fresh water (46F last weekend). I have to say that to a diver that is used to the quick degradation of wood wrecks in warmer salt water it was a real pleasure to dive these wrecks. In particular, the City of Sheboygan had many artifacts remaining that just are not found in the ocean like tools, china, dead eyes and blocks. On the aft mast of the City of Sheboygan I saw one 2 pulley block that was still on its hook just like the day she sank and the masts, though fallen, were complete with caps. But for a steam freak, the Comet could not be beat. The Comet is a side-wheeler with independent walking beam engines and boilers. Both the wheels and engines are still standing. Except for the layer of zebra mussels, the engines look like that could be put to work with some cleaning. In exploring the engines I was struck with just how sparse the engine plant really was.

Zebra Mussels

As I stated, the zebra mussel were evident on all of the wrecks but the thickest that I saw were about 2" thick. Some areas of the wrecks were completely devoid of them. In particular, the decking of the Comet was totally clean while the iron of the engines was coated to 2". Could it be a wood chemistry effect?

As some have reported, the water clarity has improved dramatically since the mussels were introduced. The owner of the dive shop that I used told of visibility of only 3-5 feet in 1978 and we had 50-60ft under overcast skies. One member of my dive club reported that the Comet was a touch-and-feel dive when he did it in 1968.

Preservation Efforts

The two sport diver groups that have been working to preserve the wrecks are Save Ontario Shipwrecks (S.O.S.) and Preserve Our Wrecks (Kingston) (P.O.W.). Both of these groups have been very successful in educating the diving public, establishing boat moorings, and policing the divers and dive boats. Membership in these groups by the dive captains and shops was universal. The activity of the members was very apparent, on the wreck of the Comet I over heard on the radio, one dive master reporting to another boat that one of their divers was abusive to the wreck and should be talked to.

In talks with the boat captains and dive shop owners I repeatedly heard "underwater museum" and "economic resource" as the descriptions of the value of the wrecks. These people know that it is in their monetary interest to preserve the wrecks as attractions to divers. This is perhaps the best example of non-fishing duel use that I have found in North America.

The activities of the SOS and POW groups are not limited to just the dive shops. When the zebra mussels first appeared in the lake they commissioned a photo documentary of the wrecks so that they could be recorded before being totally covered. This was at a time when some of the lakes up stream were seeing layers of mussels of 1-3 feet! This study, Photo Project Final Report by Jonathan Moore 1998 ISBN 0-9683588-0-2, is available through the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes at Kingston 55 Ontario St., Kingston Ontario K7L 2Y2. I must say that there were no apparent problems between the museum and divers with many artifacts recovered by divers on display.

POW has also offered rewards for the arrest and convection of divers removing artifacts from the wrecks. In one dive shop I saw a reward for $1,000 Canadian for information on the removal of a name plaque from a generator set on the Munson. Due to the low dollar value of this plaque ($<15?), I do not think any law enforcement agency would ever investigate the theft never mind offer a reward. A scan of this poster is attached. I will also note that when some of the local Ontario archaeologists proposed legislation (Rule 13) that was thought to be restrictive to divers, SOS and POW lead the fight against it. Again, the wrecks are the income generators for the boats, hotels, restaurants, and dive shops. They know that the wrecks, because of their unique preservation, are more valuable intact on the bottom then recovered. This is duel use and SOS/POW is right in the middle.

All in all I was very happy to see the state of the wrecks and the activity of the sport divers in preserving them and hope that some of you might be interested in researching the efforts of SOS and POW as a model for your areas of the world. I know that I will be doing more exploring up there.

Peter Johnson

Connecticut, USA, May 2000

photo by Gary Thibault used here with kind permission

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