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Century-old steamer wreck found in Lake Ontario

ALBANY, N.Y. Jim Kennard and his partners were wrapping up their season of searching for historic shipwrecks on Lake Ontario's eastern end when they decided to make one last sweep of the lake bottom with their sonar equipment.

Their "Hail Mary" effort earlier this month paid off with the discovery of the shipwreck of the Roberval, 128-foot Canadian steamer that sank nearly a century ago, killing two of the vessel's nine crew members. The Roberval was one of only two sunken steel-clad ships still undiscovered in the lake, which made it a much sought-after find by Great Lakes shipwreck hunters, Kennard said this week.

"We've been looking for this for two years now," Kennard said. "It was a nice way to end the season."

The Ottawa-based steamer was hauling lumber across the lake's eastern end, bound for Oswego, when it ran into rough conditions in late September 1916. According to the explorers, tons of spruce lumber piled on deck broke lose when 30 mph winds kicked up high waves that knocked the ship on its side. Some of the lumber smashed into the upper cabin structure and hit a crewman, who was knocked overboard and drowned.

A second crewman went down with the ship when the shifting timber trapped him in a forward compartment.

Three crew members made it to a leaky lifeboat and spent nine hours rowing to Oswego, located 35 miles north of Syracuse. The captain, the female cook and two other crew members survived by making a raft out of floating lumber, according to the explorers. They were rescued 22 hours after the sinking by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Kennard, of Fairport, said the Roberval sank in water more than 300 feet deep, about 16 miles off Oswego. After discovering the wreck, Kennard and fellow explorers Roger Pawlowski of Gates and Roland Stevens of Poultneyville used a remotely operated vehicle to get video footage of the shipwreck. Details captured in the footage match up with photographs taken of the Roberval after it was built in 1907, Kennard said.

Also, the wreck's dimensions and the fact the Roberval is the only steamer known to have sunk in that area of the lake led to its confirmation as that of the lost Canadian steamer, Kennard said.

The discovery of the Roberval capped a search season during which the team also found the wrecks of two schooners that sank off Oswego in the 19th century and detected other possible wreck sites for future exploration.

"This has been the best season ever," Kennard said.