HISTORICAL FIND

Daniel J. Gildea, a recreational scuba diver, recently found what he believes to be a previously undiscovered shipwreck in Henderson Bay. Kara Dry/Watertown Daily Times

Daniel J. Gildea describes himself as an amateur diver and historian. But local experts like Dennis R. McCarthy have taken that interest to a new level.

“I’m an amateur trying to be an expert,” he said. “Those guys are experts and role models.”

Mr. Gildea, who has a hobby of diving to historic shipwrecks and who made a notable discovery in Henderson Bay last summer, often seeks the advice of Mr. McCarthy.

“Dennis has been the number one asset with helping with what I found,” he said.

Mr. McCarthy and his wife, Kathi, of the St. Lawrence River Historical Foundation, will share their extensive knowledge of shipwrecks on Jan. 28 with the talk, “Shipwrecks of the 1000 Islands” hosted by the Antique Boat Museum over Google Meet.

Among others that Mr. Gildea has sought expertise include Tim Caza, a United States Coast Guard captain who has been an active scuba diver for over 40 years, specializing in wreck diving; and Mark Barbour, North Syracuse, an expert on Lake Ontario shipwrecks. Last year, Mr. Barbour led a preservation effort on the remains of a section of ship that washed ashore at Sandy Pond that he believes is the Hartford, which sank in 1894.

But with any discovery of an underwater wreck, Mr. Gildea said it’s best to take it slow and to follow the research.

“As Dennis says, there’s no name tags on them,” he said.

Mr. Gildea and his associates are still researching data from what he found this past summer in Henderson Bay, Lake Ontario. He came in contact with a ship: a three-masted wooden schooner that most likely dates back to the mid- to late-1800s, resting at about 20 to 30 feet on the bottom of Henderson Bay.

For years, there had been talk from local fishermen that their anchors were being snagged on something, possibly a dock that came loose, in the area.

“But nobody dove to it, because it’s out in the lake and a lot of people stick to diving in the river area where there’s more to look at,” Mr. Gildea said. “But if I hear about anything, I go scuba dive it.”

Stationed with the Army in Guam about nine years ago for a peacekeeping mission, Mr. Gildea, now a construction superintendent for the state Office of General Services Design and Construction, ran out of hobbies to do on land, so he started picking up underwater hobbies, including scuba diving. In the year he was stationed in Guam, he said he pursued scuba diving as far as one can take it recreationally.

The Pennsylvania native was eventually stationed at Fort Drum and retired from the Army in 2018. Here, he began pursuing freshwater diving. The local history aspect fascinates him.

“Back in 2014, my love for scuba diving and shipwrecks was expanded upon by the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario, because the shipwrecks up here are far older than anything that you could dive to in the Pacific Ocean,” Mr. Gildea said. “Up here, the wood is preserved in the freshwater.”

He said there’s much more work to do to positively identify the wreck he came across over the summer in Henderson Bay.

Mr. Gildea said that he, along with Mr. McCarthy, Mr. Barbour and Mr. Caza, researched records on the wrecks that were claimed to have been lost in the area in the 1800s.

“That ended up being about 48 shipwrecks,” Mr. Gildea said.

To narrow down the list, particulars about the ships, from the types of joints to the types of nails used in construction, had to be researched.

The list has been narrowed down to three potential ships, but with an eye on one in particular.

“In the ship we think it is, in the newspaper records from the captain’s letter in 1830 said that he dropped his anchor in like 55 feet of water and the ship broke free from the anchor and crashed into the rocks,” Mr. Gildea said. “All those details are spot on with where this wreck is located at. However, we have to confirm that the anchor is there first.”

Mr. Gildea said he is waiting for the lake to calm down before studying the area further.

“With identifying any of these ships, it’s always a puzzle,” he said. “You start with: ‘Here’s a ship.’ It doesn’t matter where it is in the lake.”

Mr. Gildea said that he and his wife, Danielle, enjoy land-based and water-based “history recovery.” On land, it can be walks in the woods and discovering remnants ranging from old homesteads to stone walls.

“We classify things and donate them to local museums or historical societies,” he said. “For us, the history aspect of it and the research that goes with it is kind of second nature at this point. We’ve been doing it for a little over eight years.”

Danielle doesn’t scuba dive but she does snorkel with Daniel in the shallows, while he goes a little deeper, 20 to 40 feet. His wife does accompany him diving and maintains a lookout from the surface as needed.

Mr. Gildea looks upon the videos he takes of shipwrecks as treasures.

“That right there documents enough,” he said of the films. “Even if the wreck was picked apart by divers, or people stole stuff off of, that video will never change. I didn’t need to bring back compasses or anchors and bells like a lot of people in the state of New York do that dive. That video sets me aside from everybody else. I have video that shows footage of that wreck in its natural environment, from the time it sank to the time I dove it and nobody touched it.”

Mr. Gildea has been following the progress of the proposed Lake Ontario National Marine Sanctuary and has been in contact with those involved in it on the local and national level.

“It’s going to boost a lot of the economic growth for the Henderson area, because that’s the safe harbor close to a lot of these wrecks,” he said. “I think dive charters out of that area will be a very good business opportunity for somebody who has the assets to create it.”

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