Oct. 11, 1894 — To superintendent of lifesaving stations, Washington, D.C.:
“An unknown schooner came to anchor about 6 miles south of the station ... sank, all hands lost; a high gale of wind and high seas prevailed. Went with a life boat.”
— Capt. William Fish, Captain of Big Sandy Life Saving Crew
— — —
SANDY CREEK — Nicole M. Nicosia, librarian at Mexico High School, regularly takes walks at Sandy Pond Beach area, where her fiancé’s family has a private camp at nearby West Shore Drive.
Sandy Pond Beach is at the heart of a 17-mile long barrier system stretching from the Salmon River north to Eldorado Beach along the eastern shore of Lake Ontario. In 1995, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, The Nature Conservancy and The Friends of Sandy Pond Beach joined together to establish and manage the area for nature and people.
“We were heading to the point, and I turned to Joe (Lasnicki, her fiancé) and said, “‘Look! What’s in the water?’” Ms. Nicosia said of her Sunday, March 8 walk.
Mr. Lasnicki kept walking but Ms. Nicosia wandered closer to what she spotted, located on the lake side of the peninsula.
“I said, ‘It’s a boat!’” Ms. Nicosia said. “I could see that the ribs of the boat were curved. You could tell that it was the hull of a boat.”
Mr. Lasnicki took photos of his fiancé posing with the discovery, which Ms. Nicosia posted on social media. The images went viral on The Friends of Sandy Pond Facebook page and caught the attention of maritime historian and diver Mark Barbour, North Syracuse, who is near certain that the remains of the ship are part of the three-masted schooner the Hartford, which sank in 1894.
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 four others.
The O’Tooles left five other children orphans, who after the tragedy were cared for by their 68-year-old grandmother, Sarah O’Toole of Clayton.
Accompanying the washing up of the skeletal remains of the ship last month came fresh reflections about the captain of the doomed vessel by his descendants.
Within days of Ms. Nicosia’s discovery, Sarah Roche, Syracuse, a great-granddaughter of Capt. O’Toole, stood at the foot of the wreckage, along with Mr. Barbour and two others, following more than a 2-mile hike. Mr. Barbour, also an ordained minister, said a prayer.
“I had never felt this before,” Ms. Roche recalled about the visit. “It was very clear and the water was sparkling. Even though I was cold, I could feel their presence. I could feel it very strongly. And just looking at the wood — some people think it’s driftwood or whatever — but it’s a ship that hasn’t even been visually looked at in 126 years.”
Ms. Roche said she felt the souls of her great-grandfather and the other victims.
“And I felt uplifted,” she said. “I have a strong faith in God. I said, ‘I can’t wait to meet you, Captain O’Toole.’”
“It’s a 20-by-20-foot section washed up after 126 years underwater,” Mr. Barbour said. “It’s really something.”
Mr. Barbour described the section, found near the inlet, lakeshore, that heads into North Sandy Pond and where a boardwalk is located, as part of the Hartford’s bow.
“You can see the ribs on both sides, with planking underneath,” Mr. Barbour said.
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 Hartford began its last trip from its anchorage in Clayton, with stops in Oswego, where it picked up coal, which was dropped off at Toledo, Ohio. It then headed west, to the Welland Canal and to the port at Detroit.
The late 19th century increasingly saw sailing schooners on the lake replaced by steam-powered vessels. The publication Seaports and the Shipping World reported in 1978 that steam ships outnumbered schooners for the first time at the Welland Canal, which was expanded several times to fit the increasing size of schooners, in 1890.
“A lot of these people were making the last voyage of the summer,” Mr. Barbour said. “They were trying to compete against steam engines and rail and everything. They were desperate to make money. They’d hope for the best and make these runs.”
At Detroit, the Hartford was loaded with 22,000 bushels of white wheat, destined for a purchaser in Watertown, with delivery at Cape Vincent. The load was valued at $15,000 — $450,000 in today’s dollars. The Hartford set sail on Oct. 5, 1894.
According to Times files, a woman living off Mexico Bay, south of the Jefferson County line, looked out to Lake Ontario at midday on Thursday, Oct. 11 and saw a schooner struggling to survive under a dark sky.
A few hours earlier, Capt. Fish at the Big Sandy Life Saving Crew near Nine Mile Point saw the craft struggling an estimated 6 to 8 miles out in the lake, straining to get out of the bay. Instead, its sails were pulled down at about 11:25 a.m. and the anchor dropped. Crew members were seen scurrying on deck trying to save the ship, which began dragging its anchors and on track to slam into the beach.
Capt. Fish did launch a lifeboat in attempt at rescue, but the boat was forced back. Times files say Capt. Fish had to be rescued when waves swept him from his vessel. At around 2 p.m., The Hartford sank, with seven lives lost. In addition to Capt. O’Toole, his wife and infant daughter, the victims, according to Times’ files, were 18-year-old William Donaldson of Theresa, Dennis McCarthy of Oswego, a man named Farquahaurson of Grindstone Island and ship’s mate Damas Turgeon.
The first body to wash ashore was that of 5-month old Mary Kathleen O’Toole. It was followed by her mother’s body. “Of the crew, none of them washed up,” Mr. Barbour said. “Just those two bodies were recovered.”
The Times reported that cabin furniture, hatches, a stern post yawl and bowsprit found their way to the shoreline and were carried away by “beach pirates.”
Another of Capt. O’Toole’s great-granddaughters, Barbara Roche Gaines of Florida, said she became emotional when she received word of a section of the Hartford coming ashore.
“As far as we know, our great-grandfather’s body is still there, or the bones are still there,” Ms. Gaines said of the main section of the ship. “So it kind of sent shivers down my spine. Every one of the great-grandchildren has a picture of the Hartford. We all have a copy of the poem about the Hartford. It was something our dads talked about all the time while growing up. It was like, ‘This is what happened and your grandmother was 7 at the time this went down and she came through the tragedy and look how strong it’s made all of us.’”
The five O’Toole children who were left orphans and cared by their 68-year-old maternal grandmother, Sarah O’Toole of Clayton: Edward, 11; Anna, 8; Sarah, 7; John, 3; and Margaret, 5.
“The story goes that Anna was on board too, but on the way to Detroit, they dropped her in Oswego because she was misbehaving,” Ms. Roche said.
Capt. O’Toole has a grave marker at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Clayton, although his body was never found. The captain’s wife, infant daughter and other descendants are buried at the cemetery, along with Capt. O’Toole’s mother.
“My most famous memory of the Hartford is every summer taking flowers to the grave,” Ms. Roche said. “As a child, you don’t really connect. It’s a summer trip. But as you get older, you see the picture of the boat that was always in our family cottage at Pine Grove. So the story was always vividly told by my dad and my two uncles.”
Ms. Roche sent Mr. Barbour the photo of the Hartford.
“I was blown away because I had never seen a photograph of it,” he said.
But he was quite familiar with the ship and its history.
Mr. Barbour has a history himself of discovering and exploring wrecks at sea and on land.
In the 1970s, Mr. Barbour and his late father, Breese Barbour, an education professor at LeMoyne College, found the remains of the John Burt, which sank off of Sandy Pond Sept. 26, 1892. A section of the John Burt washed ashore about 50 years ago.
“I was researching the Hartford, as it sank two years after the John Burt sank and I never found it. I had horrible equipment back then — basically a depth finder and a grappling hook. I’ve looked for the Hartford for years up there,” said Mr. Barbour, whose family had a summer camp on Renshaw Bay in Sandy Pond for about 40 years, starting in 1958. “But this spring, it decided to push a piece up. It’s really amazing.”
The Hartford, Mr. Barbour said, seems to be made out of white oak, which he said is what most of the schooners of that era were made out of. It’s almost identical to the John Burt in construction, both 137 feet long and 26 feet wide.
The ribs of the Hartford section that washed ashore are about 6 inches wide and a foot deep.
“So they’re big, old hand-hewn timbers and held together by the old square nails and spikes and things, very reminiscent of what we found underwater with the John Burt,” Mr. Barbour said.
Mr. Barbour, along with others familiar with the Hartford’s washed-up wreckage, are concerned what will become of it.
“When the John Burt washed up in ’69, people made picture frames and everything else,” he said. “Within a couple of weeks, every piece of the wreckage was gone.”
Mr. Barbour has contacted New York State history and education officials along with those at New York Sea Grant. He would like to see it preserved for future generations.
The wreckage is along a section of the beach system that’s known as “boaters beach.” It has easy access by boaters. Walkers face some rough terrain.
“They at least at some point want to rope it off, just so people don’t get hurt on it, and they’re also afraid people may take souvenirs from it,” Mr. Barbour said.
The wreckage, Ms. Roche said, is getting more lodged in the sand.
“Even if they posted signs, as soon as the weather gets warm, kids are going to be swimming,” she said. “I’m hoping we could pay someone to lift it out as one piece. It’s all in one piece, which is a miracle.”
But she believes state and maritime officials have been too busy with the COVID-19 crisis to field her questions.
“People could take a saw and get souvenirs and stuff,” Ms. Roche said. “It’s not protected in any way.”
Daria E. Merwin, co-director of the Cultural Resource Survey Program at the New York State Museum, Albany, referred questions from a Times reporter about such remains of shipwrecks to Christina Rieth, state archaeologist and co-director of the program. A response was not received before the deadline for this section.
Mr. Barbour said he recently received a call from someone who thinks he found another piece of a shipwreck that washed ashore.
“He was north of Southwick Beach and found what looks like to be the skeleton of another shipwreck,” he said.
He thinks the high waves on the lake this past winter, up to 20 feet, may have something to do with the wreck sections coming ashore this spring.
“When they hit, they’re just churning the bottom up,” Mr. Barbour said.
The depth where the Hartford came to rest he said, was in about 40 feet of water. He added that an acquaintance of his discovered the remains of the Hartford last year using side-scan sonar. Its location is directly offshore where a section of it washed up.
The area of Mexico Bay can be hazardous for ships, Mr. Barbour said.
“If you’re in Mexico Bay, at the eastern end of Lake Ontario, and there’s a 15-foot sea driving everything toward that eastern shore, once you cross Oswego and if you try to make your way into Oswego harbor or out to Cape Vincent or one of those places, once you get in a little bit too far, there’s no place to go. There’s no way out. It’s almost like a trap out there.”
Mr. Barbour received his diving certification in 1970, while he was in eighth grade.
“I’ve had the history bug since then,” he said. In 1997, he discovered the wreckage of a Curtiss C-46 Commando transport aircraft in the Adirondacks.
“There’s something really special about it,” Mr. Barbour said of his maritime historical pursuits. “If something went down 126 years ago and you’re the first persons there, it’s thrilling in a sad kind of way.”
For Ms. Roche, the discovery of the Hartford section carried a pensive message.
“It feels like such a blessing that it happened in my lifetime,” she said. “It makes it just so much more tangible, instead of reading about it and hearing bits of stories and recollections.”
She added, “It’s difficult to look at. It felt like it was a message from heaven. It felt like my family came full circle.”