Oswego County is a great place for scuba divers to explore. Some historians estimate there have been over 160 shipwrecks off the coast of Oswego County in Lake Ontario, and several more in Oneida Lake.
Oswego County is host to New York State’s first diving preserve in the Great Lakes. The New York State David W. Mills Submerged Cultural Preserve and Dive Site features the shipwreck of the freighter David W. Mills and provides a mooring buoy to allow visiting scuba divers to easily find and access the site.
- Scuba Diving Links
- The Wreck of the Mary Kay
- The Wreck of the David W. Mills
- The Wreck of the Harborfest Houseboat
Constructed in 1957, the MARY KAY was a 55-foot, 35-ton tugboat powered by twin Murphy diesel engines. In 1988, the MARY KAY was purchased and re-fit by Salvage and Demolition Inc. of North Weymouth, Massachusetts. On September 21, 1988, the MARY KAY left Rochester, NY to begin her long journey to her new home in Boston.
Just west of Oswego harbor, two 9-foot waves crashed over her stern and filled the engine room. She listed and sank quickly. Aboard were the captain and engineer. Responding to a short radio call for help and phone calls from witnesses on land, the US Coast Guard cutter from Oswego headed out into the storm and rescued the two men. The City of Oswego Police Department awarded the USCG crew certificates of recognition for bravery.
The stern and midships of the MARY KAY sit upright on the rocky bottom. The bow section lays on its port side. The superstructure has crumbled and lays in a debris field immediately south of the wreck. A one to two-inch layer of zebra mussels coats the wreck and the surrounding geology. The two propellers, bollard posts, and twin diesel engines are exposed for inspection. Bass often school around the stern and eels can be observed during night dives.
Shallow depths and the absence of penetration areas make this a popular dive for newly certified divers. Experienced divers find the wreck very relaxing, allowing for detailed observation of vessel construction and longer site exploration, often not possible on deeper wrecks.
Photographers and videographers appreciate the bright natural light, and the vessel’s machinery make good photo props. There are a variety of fish that inhabit the area.
Diving is possible May through October. May to early June and late summer are the best times to dive.
The GPS coordinates for the MARY KAY are: N 43.27.705 W 76.33.198.
A maritime heritage educational guide to the wreck of the MARY KAY is available from the Oswego Maritime Foundation*, phone (315) 342-5753.
- Download the Full David W. Mills Wreckage Brochure (PDF)
- David W. Mills – Shipwreck Named New York’s First Diving Preserve in Great Lake Ontario
At 5:30 a.m. on August 11, 1919, the 202-foot steamship David W. Mills slammed into Ford Shoal, four and a half miles west of Oswego. The 925-ton vessel was the victim of freakish circumstances.
Immense forest fires in Canada, combined with late summer weather, blanketed Lake Ontario in a fog so thick you could see only a few feet. Visual navigation was impossible.
The Mills had just left Oswego. Captain Matthew Langan, a resident of the city, had ordered his wheelman to veer the ship southward in hopes of following the shoreline to Sodus. Before ever sighting land, the Mills grounded on the shoal.
Efforts to free the Mills proved futile and a violent storm tore her to pieces, ending her 45-year career of carrying lumber and coal throughout the Great Lakes.
Captain Langan’s misfortune is today’s SCUBA divers’ delight. During the past four years, the David W. Mills has found a new career as a popular recreational dive site.
In 1991, the Oswego Maritime Foundation (OMF), with support from New York Sea Grant and the Great Lakers Dive Association, began researching and mapping the wreck. OMF used the data and a grant from the NYS Council on the Arts to publish a “maritime heritage educational guide” to the wreck. The pamphlet guides divers around the wreck site, promotes the preservation of submerged historic sites, provides a history of the Mills, and tells the story of steam power on the Great Lakes.
Resting in only 12 to 25 feet of water, the Mills is a relaxing dive for divers of all skill levels. Because she broke apart during a storm, the Mills provides divers with a look at how steamships were constructed over a century ago.
The largest intact section of the wreck is the bottom of the ship. As you swim along its 180-foot length, you can sense the size of the Mills, which could carry over one million board- feet of lumber. The ship’ backbone, called the keel, runs the length of the section and rises four feet off the bottom.
You can see about 35 feet before the green tint of Lake Ontario obscures your surroundings. Zebra mussels coat everything and grasses gently sway in docile eddies and currents.
You swim northwest toward the stern. Passing below you are heavy oak timbers that once supported the bulk of the vessel, but are now home to spawning panfish and eels. To your right is a spare propeller blade and a thick metal deck support.
The keel ends and the propeller shaft appears, only to disappear again into the gloom off the stern of the ship. Following the propeller shaft, the four massive blades of the eleven-foot propeller suddenly loom ahead. You take a few moments to examine the six-inch nuts holding the blades to the shaft. The propeller was not a single unit: the blades could be removed independently. Now you know what that spare propeller blade was for.
Using the map in the OMF maritime heritage guide, you follow your compass to the next part of the wreck, a 103-foot section of the starboard hull. It lies flat against the rocky bottom. Small fish play and feed among its timbers.
Again following your compass you leave the starboard hull. Within a few feet appears the huge steam engine that powered the Mills’s propeller. It’s metal bulk rises several feet off the bottom. Swimming around the engine you observe the piston chamber, gears and engine framework.
Looking northwest you see another section of hull lying on the bottom. This is the port hull. You travel 150-feet down its length. Unlike the starboard hull, this piece is littered with large sheets of metal plating and piping.
Reaching the end of the port hull, you look westward and the most famous part of the shipwreck appears, the engine boiler. The boiler is well-known because its massive hulk reaches to within one-foot of the surface and many unfortunate boaters have struck it by accident.
The boiler rests on its side with the expansion chamber still connected. Fuel was burned to heat water in the boiler and produce the steam that powered the engine. A short swim from the boiler and you find the flat metal rudder of the Mills.
Returning to the boiler you set a course westward. After swimming 165-feet over rocks and grasses you discover the winch, sitting upright, still attached to a section of the forward deck. The winch was used to raise and lower the ship’s anchor.
Looking closely you notice the anchor chain is still wrapped around the winch, one end trailing-off across the lake bottom. Curiosity sets in and you begin to follow the chain. It meanders its way among the rocks for 70 feet before turning at a sharp angle. You continue to follow it, wondering if it ever ends. After swimming the course of this wreck and chasing this huge chain, you are huffing and puffing pretty steadily by now.
Finally, after another 100 feet, the chain ends, but you’re not disappointed. There on the bottom, still attached to its chain as though devotedly dedicated to its duty of holding the steamship in place, is the two-point, fluked anchor of the 121 year-old David W. Mills!
The wreck of the David W. Mills can be found using the OMF guide and NOAA Chart 14803. The wreck lies halfway between shore and the green Ford Shoal buoy. The boiler is marked as a boulder on the nautical chart. The GPS coordinates for the Mills are N 43.26.630, W 76.35.089.
Use extreme caution when approaching the site. If you run over the boiler, you could severely damage your hull and engine. Sometimes fishermen or divers place a buoy on the boiler to make it easy to find, but don’t rely on finding it buoyed.
On a clear calm day the wreck can be seen from the surface. Please do not anchor into the wreck. Anchoring on wrecks can damage them and hasten their demise.
And please only take pictures! Shipwrecks are a part of our common maritime heritage and deserve protection so that we and future divers and historians can learn from them and enjoy them.
The OMF* guide to the wreck is available by contacting the foundation at (315) 342-5753, or stopping by the OMF office, located in the McCrobie Building at 41 Lake Street in Oswego.
Oswego has a four-day festival every year during the last full weekend in July. The event is called Harborfest. Most people remember the 1993 Harborfest as the year “Today Show” Weatherman Willard Scott did his morning weather reports from Oswego. But most local divers remember it as the year they got a new local shipwreck.
Harborfest ’93 was windy. Northwest winds were kicking up eight-foot waves on Lake Ontario. A 32-foot houseboat was out on the lake that day. The little, calm-water vessel didn’t stand a chance, and it foundered in 32 feet of water just west of Oswego Harbor. The two men aboard were rescued by the Coast Guard.
During the first winter the vessel was submerged the cabin was swept away by ice and now lies in peices to the east. All that remains is the hull and outside railing. The houseboat is the new home of plenty of bass and perch.
The real name of the vessel is all but forgotton. Local divers began refering to it as the “Harborfest Houseboat.” The name stuck after it appeared in a newspaper’s trivia article in 1996.
GPS: N 43.27.470 W 76.33.335