PULASKI — After years of sleuthing, Bonnie Turgeon Borrello found closure, comfort and amazement on the shores of Sandy Pond Beach earlier this month.
“It’s been all these years, and it’s just amazing that this thing appeared all of a sudden,” Mrs. Borrello said. “I just can’t get over it.”
When she came upon the wreckage of the 19th-century schooner the Hartford on June 16, it concluded a search that began in 1981 with the death of her mother, Elina Turgeon. It was then she began looking into family history, particularly the life of Damas Turgeon, a ship’s mate on the Hartford.
After Elina died, Mrs. Borrello routinely traveled from her home in Texas to visit and care for her dad, Charles Turgeon, who died in 1987. She had heard fuzzy family stories about Damas and found time to look into his life. She also hoped to discover the final resting spot of his ship, the Hartford.
“I became very intrigued as to what had happened,” Mrs. Borrello said. “It was from there that I developed a real interest in finding out more, and I tried doing that in all kinds of ways.”
Locally, she visited Flower Memorial Library, the H. Lee White Marine Museum and the Thousand Islands Museum, seeking newspaper accounts, ship info and family history. She attended lectures by shipwreck experts. In Maine, she took a ride on a schooner to get a feel of the type of boat that Damas sailed on. One year, on their way back to Texas from their summer home on Fishers Landing, Mrs. Borrello and her husband, Sebastian, toured a section of the Welland Canal, which the Hartford regularly passed through on its trips to Lake Erie and ports on that lake.
“We got to see how the ships go through the canal,” Mrs. Borrello said. “I know it was a long time back and it was different, but still, it was an experience that seemed to bring me closer to Damas. We also visited Port Dalhousie (St. Catherines, Ontario), which was the last stop that they made before crossing Lake Ontario and to their deaths.”
The 137-feet long, 307-ton Hartford was built at Linn & Craig Shipyard in Gibraltar, Mich., and launched in 1873. It was owned by a conglomerate in Oswego. The three-masted schooner sank in 1894 off Mexico Bay. It struggled in a fierce fall gale and finally succumbed to it.
Capt. William O’Toole, 45, Clayton, a native of Constableville and son of Civil War soldier and Irish immigrant, Peter O’Toole, piloted the Hartford. In addition to the captain, also lost when the ship went down were his wife, Mary Manson O’Toole and their 5-month-old child, Mary Kathleen, along with Damas Turgeon and three others: William Donaldson of Theresa, Dennis McCarthy of Oswego and a man named Farquahaurson of Grindstone Island.
None of the bodies of the crew washed ashore.
“As with the O’Tooles, Damas has a headstone in St. Mary’s Cemetery, Clayton, in the same row,” Mrs. Borrello said. “Damas was 47 years old when he drowned and left a family of six children.”
Damas’s descendants, Mrs. Borrello said, lived in Clayton for several years.
“His grandson, Tom, was a founder of the Antique Boat Museum,” she said.
Mrs. Borrello found articles on the sinking of the Hartford and has shared them with family members over the years.
“I have been fascinated with the story and have searched for whatever I could find,” she said.
But her search never turned up the resting spot of the Hartford.
“Everybody I asked tried to find out more — if that ship had been found and all of this,” she said. “No,’ they would say. ‘They were left down there. A lot had been found, but never the Hartford.’”
In March, a 20-by-20-foot section of the Hartford washed ashore after 126 years under water. It was found near the inlet, lakeshore, that heads into North Sandy Pond and where a boardwalk is located. It was discovered by Nicole M. Nicosia, librarian at Mexico High School, who regularly hikes at Sandy Pond Beach area. The find was reported by local media, including an April 11 story in the Watertown Daily Times.
After reading the Times story online from her home in Texas, Mrs. Borrello wrote to its author: “Now, after these many years, it has come to light. I can’t believe it!”
She was put in contact with maritime historian and diver Mark Barbour, North Syracuse, an expert on Lake Ontario shipwrecks and who is leading a preservation effort on the remains of the Hartford.
“I am so thankful for his efforts in trying to preserve the wreck,” Mrs. Borrello said. “If it wasn’t for him, I don’t know what would happen. It’s such a wonderful thing for him to do. He’s not a relative or anything and some of us are just not able to do that sort of thing at this point in our lives now.”
On June 16, she made the trek to see the wreckage herself. Accompanying her was a cousin, Ann Halback, Watertown. The first leg was arrival at Sandy Island Beach State Park, part of the Eastern Lake Ontario dune and wetland system.
The park includes a 17-mile stretch which extends from the town of Richland, Oswego County, north along Lake Ontario to Jefferson County. From the state park parking lot, a person can walk north along the beach for about an hour before coming to where Sandy Pond and Lake Ontario meet. But on their visit, Mrs. Borrello and her cousin brought kayaks because the trek to the wreckage is over some rough terrain. Her husband stayed behind at the parking lot.
“We launched at the park and went along the spit of land on the inside of Sandy Pond, the quiet side,” Mrs. Borrello said. “We found somebody there who could tell us how to go up and we would find this board walk. We had to walk across the boardwalk to the lake side. That’s what we did and we walked to the beach and to the wreck.”
She was overwhelmed at the sight.
“It was just amazing,” Mrs. Borrello said. “I couldn’t believe it. Still, I don’t have words to express the feeling of it.”
Also at the site that way was Richard H. Jordan III, Rochester, who Mrs. Borrello noticed was taking several photographs of the wreckage. She introduced herself, and Mr. Jordan, who has a family cottage at Sandy Pond. He took photos of Mrs. Borrello and her cousin.
“Then he did the most wonderful thing,” Mrs. Borrello said. “I had brought my husband with me but he can’t walk that far and we didn’t have an extra kayak. There was no way to get him here. And it was such a sight. I just wanted to share it with him.”
She mentioned her desire to share the experience with her husband to Mr. Jordan.
“Then Richard said, ‘I’ll go and get him in my boat.’ And he did,” Mrs. Borrello said, her voice breaking. “Because he had a motor boat. He went down, picked him up and he came back. It was just wonderful. We were there for a long time, taking pictures, reminiscing and looking.”
Mr. and Mrs. Borrello celebrated their 60th anniversary on Thursday.
“It’s an emotional time for me,” she said.
Mr. Jordan, a freelance photojournalist who has been published in railroading and heavy industry publications, said he wasn’t at the Hartford site for more than five minutes before Mrs. Borrello and her cousin arrived.
“I didn’t know her at the time, but we started talking and hit it right off,” he said. “It was great watching them be together.”
Mr. and Mrs. Borrello first became interested in boats as a young couple when they purchased a small Lyman. When they retired, they returned “to the river” for summers. Mrs. Borrello began serving as a tour guide at the Antique Boat Museum, Clayton.
“We like to stay busy and involved and knew we could volunteer at the Antique Boat Museum,” Mrs. Borrello said. “Twenty years ago, Seb and some buddies started restoring several boats in the collection, and repairing some of the in-water fleet of skiffs and sailboats.”
As the weather warmed up this year and boaters took to the water, more people have come across the wreckage of the Hartford.
“A lot of people are really curious as to what it is and why it’s there,” said Mr. Barbour. “We’ve put up some signage and that’s helping to spark their interest.”
There are two signs on the post in front of the wreckage. One notes, with a “warning,” that it’s a historic shipwreck site and the other sign features a photograph of the Hartford.
“I had that made and a couple of people from the pond that I know had tools to install the post,” Mr. Barbour said. “We thought that was a good first step, to at least tell people it’s not firewood, that it’s something of value.”
There are preliminary plans to install a mobile kiosk at the site with information on the ship and crew, Mr. Barbour said. He doesn’t want the Hartford to succomb to the same fate of the John Burt.
The John Burt sank off of Sandy Pond Sept. 26, 1892. A section of it washed ashore about 50 years ago.
“It washed up in March, the same time the Hartford did,” Mr. Barbour said. “By summer, it was totally taken away by souvenir hunters. There was nothing left. It was a much bigger section and I certainly don’t want to see that happen again.”
The sun has bleached much of the oak wood remains of the Hartford.
“It looks nothing like it did when it came up out of the water — all black and water-logged,” Mr. Jordan said. “A lot of it is almost stark white. It’s washed up so far, that the sand is starting to go over it, which is good. The lake has gone down a little bit, so it’s kind of protecting it.”
Since she visited the wreckage, Mrs. Borrello has become acquainted with Sarah Roche, Syracuse, a great-granddaughter of the Hartford’s Capt. O’Toole. Ms. Roche has also visited the site.
“I agree with Sarah, that it was a message from heaven to find this thing,” Mrs. Borrello said. “It’s a note to us to remember, and I have all these years. It’s like a message from the past, reaching out to you.”