The David W. Mills was a typical Great Lakes cargo vessel of the late 19th century. Measuring 202 feet by 34 feet by 13 feet, this wooden "steambarge" could carry over one million board feet of lumber. Built by Thomas Quayle and Sons Shipyard, the vessel was originally named Sparta and was launched at Cleveland, Ohio on April 11, 1874. The vessel was renamed in 1910 after the manager of the Port Huron Navigation Company, the firm that owned the ship. Captain Frank J. Peterson bought the Mills in 1919.
The Mills ran aground on Ford Shoals on August 11, 1919 in dense smog created by forest fires in Canada. Attempts to free the boat failed and it broke apart during a violent October storm.
From 1991 to 1994, the wreck site was mapped by the Oswego Maritime Foundation (OMF). On May 3, 2000, the Mills was designated as New York State's first Submerged Cultural Preserve and Dive Site in Lake Ontario. A mooring buoy is provided from late May through mid-October for easy access by divers, snorkelers, and boaters. Please direct comments, reports of damage, or buoy problems to OMF at 315.342.5753.
Steam Power and the Great Lakes Shipping Industry
The vast commercial shipping industry of the Great Lakes was an important factor in the industrial development of the North American interior during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Schooners provided inexpensive transportation and were the region's most numerous cargo vessels until the 1920s. But schooners had limited carrying capacities and were too dependent on the weather to keep timely schedules. The rapidly growing shipping industry of the late 19th century required faster transportation and vessels, which could carry more cargo.
These two needs were met by the construction of canals and the development of steam-powered vessels. Canals linking the lakes created continuous water highways. Steamships provided steady, reliable transportation and could quickly and easily deliver goods and passengers throughout the region.
The first sidewheel steamers appeared on the lakes in 1816. These early steam vessels were so unreliable they were also equipped with sails. By the 1830s, problems with the new technology were solved and steamships claimed their place on the Great Lakes.
With their long narrow hulls and flat bottoms, sidewheelers were fast and kept reliable schedules. Passengers traveled in quarters above deck and package goods were stored below.
The first screw propeller on the lakes was installed on a steamer named the Vandalia in Oswego, NY in 1841. Vessels with propellers were slower than sidewheelers, but their entire hull space could be used to carry cargo. This allowed propeller-driven boats to carry more trade goods through the limited width of canals.
Sidewheelers were numerous on the takes until the 1860s when railroads took over the passenger and package trades. High-volume, low-value bulk commodities such as lumber became the mainstay of the shipping industry. It was at this time that propeller-driven steambarges, such as the David W. Mills made their appearance.
The pilot house on steambarges was placed well forward, and the machinery was set in the stern, allowing cargo to be piled high on deck. This design initiated the distinctive look of the Great Lakes "lakeboat," which continued through the 20th century.
In the 1880s, shipbuilders began constructing bulk freighters to carry coal, grain, and iron ore. Although similar in appearance to steambarges, bulk freighters were double-decked and much larger. Many reached lengths of 400 feet and were built of iron and steel instead of wood.
More efficient sources of engine power were developed in the 20th century. The steam engine, which had played such a vital role in the industrial development of the Great Lakes, quickly faded into maritime history.
Data Sources: 1. "A Diver's Guide to Ontario's Marine Heritage," Save Ontario Shipwrecks.
Dive Site Information
Location: Four and one-half miles west of the Oswego Harbor Lighthouse, one-half mile offshore, halfway between shore and the Ford Shoals buoy (G"7").
The mooring buoy provides divers with a safe entry and exit point, while protecting the wreck and shoal below from anchor damage. Please use the mooring only for diving and exercise diver etiquette.
A hazard buoy sometimes marks the location of the ship's boiler, which can be within 2 feet of the surface seasonally.
US Coast Guard Station Oswego:
Oswego County Emergency: 911
Dive Site Steward
The Oswego Maritime Foundation is a 501 c-3 non-profit corporation dedicated to public service through maritime related education, recreation and research. As the David W. Mills wreck site steward, OMF maintains the buoys, promotes and interprets the site for the diving and non-diving public.
To learn more about the New York Sea Grant / Seaway Trail Dive Site Steward Program, click here.