Image: Ship wreck Islander in Alexandria Bay, N.Y.
Phil Church  /  AP file
A scuba diver explores near the ship wreck Islander in Alexandria Bay, N.Y. Upstate New York offers some of the finest freshwater scuba diving in the nation, a cloistered natural attribute state officials and scuba enthusiasts are trying to promote through the creation of two 'diving trails.'
updated 9/27/2007 8:30:46 PM ET 2007-09-28T00:30:46

A half-mile offshore, 25 feet below the surface of Lake Ontario, the hull of the David B. Mills lies wrecked in three large sections, broken apart after a violent October storm 88 years ago after running aground on Ford Shoals.

Strewn about the flat, rocky bottom are the 202-foot-long barge's propeller, anchors, winch, engine, boiler, rudder and various pieces of machinery. Around the debris, perch, whitefish, bass, pike, drum and alewives — joined by a few curious scuba divers — dart through the lucent water.

Typically regarded as a paradise for hikers, climbers and campers, upstate New York also offers some of the finest freshwater scuba diving in the nation — a cloistered natural attribute state officials and scuba enthusiasts are trying to promote through the creation of two "diving trails."

The Mills wreck is part of the Dive the Seaway Trail, which will offer exploration of five diving sites along the 454-mile Seaway Trail Scenic Byway, which runs along the St. Lawrence River, Lake Ontario, Niagara River and Lake Erie, waterways filled with shipwrecks, rock formations and aquatic life.

The other trail is the Underwater Blueway Trail, a project in its pilot year with six communities that is being designed to provide diving access to shipwrecks and supply maritime heritage information to divers and non-divers.

While a handful of states have created underwater parks for diving, they are located on ocean water, said Doug McNeese, president of Scuba Schools International, one of the country's leading diving certification organizations. New York is the first state to link a series of freshwater sites into a "trail," and could become a model for other states, McNeese said.

"The Empire State is a maritime state," said Joe Zarzynski, an underwater archaeologist and a member of the New York State Divers Association who helped open the state's first underwater preserve in Lake George in 1993. "New York's inland and coastal waters carried the development of our state ... little is done to inform the public about that fact."

One of the defining battles of the American Revolution was fought near Valcour Island on Lake Champlain, where a fledgling colonial navy was born and turned back the British to help secure the young nation's survival, he said. In the 19th century, the Erie Canal was built across upstate New York, transforming the state's economy and opening the door to the nation's westward expansion.

The Seaway dive trail was initiated in 2003, two years after the Mills was designated a state Submerged Cultural Preserve and Dive Site. The Mills, a dive for any beginning open water diver, is just one of 1,500 shipwrecks in Lake Ontario, hundreds of them diveable. There are thousands more throughout the Great Lakes, whose cold fresh waters preserve the centuries-old ships and artifacts.

Other sites on the Dive the Seaway Trail include Eagle Wings, an ancient volcanic rock formation in the St. Lawrence River near Clayton; the Islander, a shore access shipwreck in Alexandria Bay; and the St. Peter, a 135-foot, three-masted schooner that sank in 117 feet of water in Lake Ontario east of Rochester in 1898 and is said to be haunted.

A fifth site, which will be an intermediate dive, has yet to be chosen, but will likely be in Lake Erie, said David White, a recreation specialist with New York Sea Grant and the coordinator for the Dive The Seaway Trail project.

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Buoy markers show where each site is located. Shore-based interpretative panels are located at the primary access point for each site, giving information about the site and the area's maritime history.

White said it became clear there were unrealized economic development opportunities after a 1999 study showed divers put more than $108 million into New York's Great lakes region each year — even without a concentrated marketing campaign.

The Underwater Blueway Trail — an idea nearly 40 years in the making — involves Lake George, Freeport (Atlantic Ocean coastal waters), Plattsburgh (Lake Champlain); Dunkirk (Lake Erie), Oswego (Lake Ontario) and Geneva (Seneca Lake).

"It's a concept divers began talking about in late 1970s but the early attempts never seemed to go anywhere. It was strictly a matter of money," said Steve Resler, the assistant chief in the state Division of Coastal Resources' Resources Management Bureau and one of the project's chief advocates.

But the six municipalities found $220,000 in matching grant money through the state Environmental Protection Fund, and coaxed another $100,000 from the state's Parks and Historic Preservation to develop the trail. The municipalities are currently working on site recommendations.

Resler would like to see the Underwater Blueway Trail expand and eventually serve as an umbrella for regional dive trails around the state, such as the Seaway dive trail. The dive trails are being developed to complement above-water state and national scenic, recreation and heritage corridors.

Lake George, which has maintained and promoted its own sites for over a decade, is the model for both trails, White and Resler said.

There are three sites located there.

One features the bottom planks of seven bateaux, double-ended vessels used to carry troops, sunk by the British in 1758 near the Wiawaka Holiday House boat house, on the east side of the lake at about 40 feet. The site is marked by a surface buoy and the wrecks are joined by underwater lines.

About a half-mile northeast of Tea Island is the radeaux, Land Tortoise, another ship intentionally sunk by the British in 1758 and rediscovered in 1990. The Land Tortoise has been designated by the Smithsonian Institution as "the oldest intact warship in North America." The wreck is for advanced divers at 107 feet and registration with the Department of Environmental Conservation is required to dive the site.

There's also a site for beginning divers featuring a 45-foot tour boat, The Forward, that sank in about 40 feet of water in the early 1900s. The site is set up as an underwater wreck-diving classroom. There's also an underwater navigation course and submerged signs to describe the ship and the area's geology, biology and thermoclines.

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