Written by Dennis McCarthy
posted on February 13, 2012 07:35
The 1876 St. Lawrence River Chart No 6, drawn by the US Army Corps of Engineers, listed a wreck off Washington Island in the lower bay at Clayton, NY.
Little is documented in the local histories about the wreck. The Thousand Islands Museum has a clipping dated December 7th 1972, from the Thousand Island Sun with clues.
This article was attributed to an "Old River Rat". It described many reminiscences of older residents about the bays around Clayton. In one paragraph, it mentions a vessel still in the lower bay that was called the Elk, owned by a man named McHalpin and captained by Wilber Vincent.
Capt. Wilber J. Vincent (4/8/1840 - 4/12/1923) kept a journal which listed his first command assignment as the captain of the schooner Elk in early 1873. He notes that later that year he was reassigned to the schooner Belle Mitchell.
There is also an article in the March 5, 1874 Watertown Re-Union newspaper mentioning the intent to raise the schooner ELk and then haul her out onto Washington Island as soon as the ice went out that spring. It is doubtful that its removal was a success.
A late nineteenth century paintings of the lower bay at Clayton shows frames and ribs protruding from the water where the wreck lays today. These paintings are purported to have been painted by the wife of Captain Willard Cook1. Captain Cook owned and captained several vessels out of Clayton in the late nineteenth century and was also a light keeper at Rock Island light house. The Cooks had a house in the back of the lower bay.
The paintings passed from the Cook Family to Clayton resident Brice Gifford, who donated them to the Thousand Island Museum in the 1970's. Today Clayton’s Skip Couch, another Cook family descendant has a copy of the painting.
The Cook and Couch oral history differs from that of the "Old River Rat" who said the schooner Elk was owned by McHalpin.
Their oral history, handed down through the years, said the wreck in the painting had belonged to Captain Willard Cook. While returning up river Captain Cook, who was known to imbibe once in a while, missed the entrance to the lower bay and hit the head of Washington Island. To keep from sinking, he sailed into shallow water and that is where the ship stayed until this day. So far no newspaper accounts have been found that supported this.
The wreck in the lower bay is impressive. If she is the wreck that was listed on the 1874 map, then she is probably one of the oldest identifiable wrecks in the Thousand Islands. Only the 1761 Iroquoise on Niagara Shoal, the Revolutionary War North Bay Wreck in Carleton Island, and the 1837 Sir Robert Peel would be older.
She rests in shallow water only about 10 feet deep. In the spring of the year after the ice is off the bay, she is visible from the surface on a calm day. Later in the year she is covered in weeds.
Her dimensions are about 100 feet in length and 30 feet wide. It appears that the width of the wreck can be attributed to pressure from ice that has spread her open. A diver can easily see the large oak timbers, all pinned together by iron spike nails. The most visible feature of the wreck is the centerboard and its casing. Centerboards or retractable keels were common on Great Lakes schooners. They allowed the vessels access to shallow harbors and also provide good sailing characteristics on the lakes.
In the 136 years from when the wreck was marked on the 1876 map, it appears that the hull of the Elk has drifted or was dragged by the ice about 200 feet. Let's hope that the next 136 years are as kind to her.
By Dennis McCarthy
Dennis McCarthy retired in 2009 from his professional career in engineering management in the Consumer Electronics and CATV industries. Having traveled to 28 countries in his business profession, he now prefers to spend his time with his wife Kathi living in Cape Vincent, NY and enjoying the Thousand Islands and St. Lawrence River. A certified scuba diver for over 40 years, he made his first dives in the River in 1971. Co-founder of the St Lawrence Historical Foundation [SRHF] in 1993, he helped organize the underwater survey of the Niagara Shoal Wreck which was identified as the French war ship L'Iroquois that sunk in 1761 (St. Lawrence River Historical Foundation Inc. website) He and his wife Kathi (See Seeing Underwater… October 2011 and Kathi and Dennis McCarthy’s Discoveries …in March 2011.) now spend their time with their long time friend Skip Couch promoting Scuba Diving via the Thousand Islands Area Scuba Divers web site www.tiasd.com and by writing and publishing diving guides and shipwreck books.