History Lesson: Exploring shipwrecks of the St. Lawrence

Shipwrecks of the St. Lawrence
Published: Jul. 28, 2023 at 6:40 AM EDT
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CAPE VINCENT, New York (WWNY) - As much fun as people have on top of the St Lawrence River, it can be even more enjoyable under the surface.

Tom Rutledge is a member of Shotline Diving, a volunteer organization documenting the shipwrecks of the river and Lake Ontario.

“There’s at least 250 wrecks from Pitkin to where I’m standing,” Rutledge said.

One of the more notable ones is in Cape Vincent, the wreck of the St. Louis Steamer.

“It goes about three feet to 12, maybe 15 feet to the deepest part of the wreck into the channel,” scuba diver Dan Gildea said.

Another popular wreck is the General Hancock Ferry on the side of Mandolin Island.

“Upon the life expectancy of the ferry, it was laid up on Mandolin Island and abandoned there,” Gildea said, “and has been there ever since.”

Abandoning or purposefully sinking ships was not uncommon once they’d done their job, like the Wolfe Islander.

“It ran from 1946 to1986 in the area, so people remember that one,” Rutledge said. “They get the chance to see it.”

But some others were taken down by rough waters or incompetent sailors.

“The A.E. VIckory is located off the Rock Island Lighthouse,” Gildea said. “The story goes with that one that the pilot was brought on to navigate the vessel through the St. Lawrence River. Shortly after, he hit the Rock Island Lighthouse shoal and sank the ship and fled, so the captain went around from tavern to pub looking for the man who made his boat sink.”

Many of the bigger ships were grain or coal carriers, not all that exciting when they were in use, but thrilling to explore underwater.

“Some wrecks go back to at least the 1700s that are documented,” Gildea said. “The HMS Ontario, one of the most significant finds in recent years, there’s still cannons on it the same way as when it sank.”

It sank in 1780 during a storm, killing 130 men. It was only discovered 15 years ago.

“And the sister ship to that is located on the side of Carlton Island in A Bay, the HMS Haldimand, was purposely sank at the dock because it met the life expectancy,” Gildea said. “These old British sailing ships were used to fight the Americans in the war of 1812 and people can go see them, they’re there.”

Whether it’s an old warship, a lost barge, or a simple schooner, north country waters are brimming with history.