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Officials hope national marine sanctuary designation would bring attention, economic boost

Coalition for Great Lake Ontario National Marine Sanctuary
Submerged shipwreck of the St. Peter

Officials from a portion of Lake Ontario that borders from Jefferson County down through Wayne County want that portion of the lake to become a national marine sanctuary. The coalition of activists and government leaders from four counties are applying for the federal designation that would put it in the same category as places like the Florida Keys.

The wreck of the St. Peter is one of the historic stories that springs out of the deep maritime history that marks southeastern Lake Ontario. The ship set out from the port of Oswego in October of 1898, laden with coal, headed to Toledo. It ran into a violent, early winter blizzard October 27, facing 70-mile an hour winds and 20-foot high seas.

"They almost made it to the Welland Canal. But the storm was so great it pushed it halfway back across the lake till it foundered in Pultneyville. So the experience those people had that night must have been horrific,” said Oswego County Administrator Phil Church. He says only the captain survived. The ship remains 112 feet underwater, still intact to tell the tale.

“It’s like visiting other places like Gettysburg, or other battlefields. You can kind of feel the people still present, in fact there are legend s that the wreck is haunted,” said Church.

Credit Coalition for Great Lake Ontario National Marine Sanctuary

History like this is what would be highlighted if this part of Lake Ontario becomes a national marine sanctuary. There are currently 14 in the United States according to Reed Bohne, regional director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“It’s kind of akin to a national park. It protects resources in a marine or a Great Lakes area. And the focus here would be on shipwreck heritage,” said Bohne.

A sanctuary designation creates tourism, and increased recreational use of an area. The sanctuary most compared to this part of Lake Ontario, is the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary on Lake Huron, which annually generates more than $100 million to the regional economy.

Local officials from all the counties involved say they’ll get an application in by the end of the year to be considered for the designation. Bohne says it’ll be a while before it becomes a reality.

"It would be about a two, three-year process. Because we would develop a management plan, and do environmental impact statement, hold lots of meetings, in the end to develop a sanctuary a community embraces,” said Bohne.

Church says this whole process may be an eye opener for some residents, who might not be aware of the area’s rich history of shipping and shipwrecks.

“I would hope that people will, though this process, suddenly realize that the lake is not just what you see on the surface. And start to understand how special and unique this area is, and feel privileged that they live here," said Church.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.