The Story of the ONONDAGA
It was the 1800's and steam powered paddle-wheelers ruled the blue waters of the Finger Lakes. These large vessels transported people and commerce on most of the Finger Lakes. One such vessel, the ONONDAGA, was once a pride of Seneca Lake.
Originally named the PEREZ H. FIELDS, the steamer transported regional troops south to Watkins Glen during the Civil War where they would be deployed to Elmira and points south. In 1870 the ship was rebuilt as a passenger vessel and renamed the ONONDAGA.
The steamer was 200 feet long, 50 feet wide and her paddle wheel was powered by a 350 horse "walking beam" engine. By today's standards she was slow, traveling only 12-14 miles per hour and taking over 3 1/2 hours to travel the length of Seneca Lake .
The steamer operated until 1885 when she was taken out of service. In June of 1898 the ship was used as an isolation ward (then known as a "pest house") for a group of traveling actors that had been quarantined due to smallpox.
The ONONDAGA leaving Geneva on a glass calm Seneca Lake.
Following being used as the isolation ward it was decided to create a grand event that would re-create the blowing up of the US Battleship MAINE that had occured in Havana harbor in Cuba earlier that year.
Flyers announcing the event ( left ) were sent all over New York and Pennsylvannia billing it as a "Never to Be Forgotten Spectacle". Advertised as what was to be the most spectacular exhibition ever offerd to the American public, the explosion was expected to hurl columns of water and tons of wood into the air.
People came to watch the event by trains from Rochester, Syracuse, Watkins Glen, Ithaca and all points in between. A full day of events were planned with several bands, a hot air balloon and fireworks display. It was estimated that 5000 people attended the event lining both shores of Seneca Lake.
To make sure the ONONDAGA was completely destroyed, over 500 pounds of dynamite and 300 pounds of blasting powder were placed throughout the ship, along with a barrel of gasoline. At 1:00 the steamer was towed down the lake about 8 miles and anchored. At 4:30 a shot from gun signaled that the explosion was about to take place. As the ship exploded, 3 tongues of flames shot out of the steamer followed by large pieces of wood. A dense mushroom cloud of yellow smoke rushed upward reaching a height of about 500 feet. The ONONDAGA was immediatley enveloped by a covering of thick smoke that completely hid the ship. By the time a light wind had slowly removed the smoke, the ship had already slipped below the waters of Seneca Lake making for a some what anti-climatic event. Other then a few pieces of debris that floated in for the next few days, the story of the ONONDAGA had come to and end ... until 2010.
Modern technology proved very helpful in 2010 as Jim Kennard, Roger Pawlowski and Hans Daatselar were searching for shipwrecks in Seneca Lake. Using sonar they picked up a faint image of a large shipwreck in approximately 400 feet of water about 8 miles south of Geneva just north of Kashong Point. The team indicated that they thought it was most likely the ONONDAGA.
In August of 2012 Kennard and Pawlowski returned to the site with high resolution side scan sonar and confirmed their findings. It showed that the upper portion of the steamer had been completely blown away and that the hull had settled into the soft bottom with only a few sections of the ship being about 5 feet above the lake bottom.
Although it has been over 100 years since the ONONDAGA sailed the waters of Seneca Lake, the facination with her story still continues to this day.
The remains of the ONONDAGA rest quietly on the bottom of Seneca Lake as seen in this side scan sonar image from 2012.