Treasure Ship?

Table of Contents

Title Page
Catching the Wave - A Wreck Rediscovered
Good Legends
The night of 29-30 April 1853.
Treasure Ship?
Table of Illustrations

Despite her rather ordinary circumstances, rumours of fabulous wealth on the wreck of the Ocean Wave still persist. Run to the ground, there are two major stories linking the Ocean Wave and money.

The first arises from stories told by some of the first salvagers on Lake Ontario. The story appears to have its origins in newspapers on the American side of the border:

"The Divers on Lake Ontario"

"The Rochester Union learns that a party of divers are now engaged in recovering the cargoes of sunken steamers in Lake Ontario. The propeller J.W. Brooks, which went down in a gale with all on board, has been found in eighty feet of water, three miles from False Duck light and an anchor was put on board to hold a buoy. The water was so cold that the divers could not work, so the wreck is to be towed into twenty feet water, and the cargo of pork, flour and copper removed.
The divers have also found the wreck of the steamer Ocean Wave, which was burned four years ago, and placed a buoy over her, and will look after her remains when the Brooks has been taken care of. The propeller Boston and other vessels lie at the bottom of the lake, which should claim the attention of these divers."64

What this story tells us is that the divers probably had not been on the Ocean Wave yet. They had probably been dragging the bottom and stumbled across another hull in what they thought was approximately the right place for the Ocean Wave. They certainly were not in a screaming rush to dive on any fabulous treasure, otherwise why were they wasting their time fishing up barrels of pork and flour from the Brooks? The Kingston version of this story omitted any reference to copper. Admittedly, who else was likely to be capable of recovering anything from the Ocean Wave?

Despite this relatively casual approach to reporting and pursuing the Ocean Wave, about a month later a second story surfaced.

"The Ocean Wave: Successful attempts have been made this last Spring to find the location of this steamer which was burned to the water's edge and sank off Long Point in the Spring of 1853. She lies in shallow water between three and four miles from the shore: the depth of the water has not yet been made public though we believe it has been ascertained. It is said to contain a large amount of money; and it is also supposed that bodies of the unfortunate passengers who did not leave the wreck are still remaining. Some means will now be found to raise her from the water; principally on account of her engine works which were new and valuable, and the money."65

Virtually every piece of verifiable information in this piece is utter rubbish. The wreck is not in shallow water. She is significantly further out from shore. Any bodies of unfortunate passengers who didn't get clear of the wreck are likely to have been completely incinerated by the heat of 300-500 barrels of burning butter. Often the interest in the passengers on board lies in the carriage of hundreds of emigrants westward with their worldly possessions secured about their persons or in the ship's safe. As we have seen, the Ocean Wave was headed in the wrong direction, too early in the season. On the other hand, the engines were perhaps worth something in the 1850s; even the scrap iron in those years would have been valuable. Much of this was still imported from British ports in the 1850s. Finally, the note adds "...and the money" without offering a clue as to its source. Given the rest of the fallacies in the piece, they may simply have assumed that there might be "some" money in the safe.

The smokestack. Photo by Dan McKay. Courtesy of Northern Tech Diver.
Why would they have been thinking that? Perhaps the best reason lay in the news surrounding the wreck of the Atlantic, which as we noted earlier, sank in Lake Erie the same summer that the Ocean Wave began operating on Lake Ontario. The Atlantic had been carrying large numbers of emigrants who had had large sums of money with them. She had additional sums of money in her safe. Within weeks of her sinking the wreck had been located.66 By 1857, several expeditions had been outfitted, and divers had descended to her decks. Money had been found.67 "Why shouldn't other wrecks be equally as fruitful?" the American divers on the Brooks might well have thought. If there is one flaw in this whole process of thinking (apart from the greed that blinds rational thought) it is that the Atlantic sank before the Ocean Wave. Indeed divers were on the Atlantic before the Ocean Wave burned. At least four vessels were in the vicinity of the Ocean Wave as she sank. Moreover, the purser was aboard two of those vessels at some point. Maybe he wasn't absolutely sure how many passengers he had aboard, but there is no reason to believe that he didn't know what was in his own safe! If there had been anything especially valuable about what these men saw sinking, given that elsewhere on the lakes salvage operations were being considered, why would they not have placed a marker on the wreck? The obvious answer: they did not feel that there was anything seriously worth salvaging.

The second story is even more intriguing. Coming as it does from someone who spent most of his life around the shores of Prince Edward County, it probably had a particularly strong influence on the shape of the local legend. This version is taken from an account in 1910.

"Sixty years ago the steamer Ocean [Wave] took fire in the course of her trip down Lake Ontario, and went to the bottom off Long Point. James Hyatt, after an unavailing attempt to save some of the survivors of the disaster, found the body of Lyman B. Fiske, a wealthy Bostonian, who had evidently jumped overboard.
Fiske's partner, an man named Humphrey, came over from Cleveland as soon as he had learned the news, and offered Hyatt a reward of $100 for the possession of the body. The latter readily complied, and signed away his right to claim any of the dead man's personal effects. Thereupon Humphrey extracted from Fiske's pocket 36 one thousand dollar bills, and transferred them to his own wallet.
Mr. Hyatt affirms that, according to the law at the time, he was entitled to half of the money found on the dead man, $18,000. But he had signed away his claim, and the wealth that had been within his grasp was now the possession of another."68

One detail mars an otherwise good story. Hyatt was never identified as one of the rescuers in the detailed investigations after the fact. This, however, may simply have been the assumption of the reporter producing the story. Lyman Fiske was aboard the Ocean Wave. In the tales of the survivors, he was last identified attempting, with the captain and the engineer, to use the fire engine. He was also identified as being a member of the firm of H.S. Humphrey of Ogdensburg.69 The moral of this story, from Hyatt's point of view, was that one should look through dead men's pockets.

More debris. Photo by Dan McKay. Courtesy of Northern Tech Diver.
If Hyatt's corpse had had that much money stashed in his pockets, why wouldn't the ship's safe yield equal riches? So confident did many become of this, that on one anniversary of the fire (in the teeth of the Great Depression), it was said "A considerable amount of gold was in the ship's safe which has never been recovered."70 Nor is it likely to be. In the fall of 1991 and the spring of 1992 two separate teams of divers searched the wreck of the Ocean Wave. Neither found bodies, safes or significant amounts of small artifacts.

The Ocean Wave, like so many other shipwrecks around the world, is an archaeological site. Its charred timbers, boilers and cylinder are testimony to the craft of nineteenth century shipwrights and engine founders. She is also a grave site, perhaps to be visited, always to be respected. The waters in which she lies are both very cold and very deep, much too deep for recreational diving. If there was a legacy offered by the fire it lies in the safety legislation already before the Legislature, a bill intended to save lives. Let us hope that in the future more lives aren't lost among the weekend "treasure seekers" looking for gold amidst the butter and flour of the Ocean Wave's cargo.


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This article originally appeared in FreshWater. Underwater photography courtesy of Northern Tech Diver.