CLAYTON — Paul “Preston” Zerwas vanished without a trace on Lake Ontario on a foggy summer night in 1973 — leaving his family and friends speculating for decades what had happened to the Clayton businessman and the boat he set out to deliver to Oswego.
Forty years later, a pair of shipwreck explorers has uncovered crucial evidence — the 32-foot houseboat Mr. Zerwas was operating when he disappeared — that sheds new light on the unsolved mystery.
Diving partners Daniel J. Scoville, a project manager and electrical engineer for Oceaneering International in Houston, and Christopher Koberstein, an aviation maintenance technician with Air Canada who lives outside Montreal, said they were sonar-scanning the lake's bottom last summer searching for a 1900s-era ship when they picked up a much smaller target of roughly 30 feet.
“It was certainly not what we were looking for,” Mr. Scoville said of the wreck discovered at the lake's bottom several miles north of Oswego. “And I honestly didn't expect it to be all that interesting. It was just a houseboat, after all. But for me, if I find something, I want to know how it got there.”
Mr. Scoville and Mr. Koberstein declined to provide the wreck's location out of fear the site would be disturbed before further investigation can be conducted.
A closer look at the wreck using Mr. Scoville's remotely operated vehicle (ROV) revealed a Florida registration number — FL 7632 AR — still intact under the thick layer of quagga mussels, and a registration sticker that had expired June 30, 1972.
“The boat didn't have a name, or we couldn't see it,” Mr. Scoville said.
Unable to obtain any information from the U.S. Coast Guard and state of Florida archives using the registration number, Mr. Scoville said, he turned to old newspaper articles.
At long last, he found a matching description of a houseboat — 32 feet long, white with a blue stripe — that went missing along with the president of the George W. Mercier Shipyard in Clayton, who was making a delivery for a co-worker.
According to Watertown Daily Times articles, Mr. Zerwas, 32, was last seen at Anchor Marina in Cape Vincent on Friday, Sept. 14, 1973, where he was told to stay and leave the next morning instead of venturing out at night through the fog and haze.
Mr. Zerwas had agreed to make the 70-mile voyage from Clayton to Oswego and bring back a trade-in boat on behalf of Robert LaShomb, a longtime employee of George W. Mercier Inc. who was leaving the company that day to start his own business.
The Sea Rover houseboat had been repaired at the Clayton shipyard and needed to be delivered to a customer, Miles Perkins of Oswego, by the next day.
After Mr. Zerwas was reported missing the next day, the Coast Guard searched the lake for seven days to no avail and Mr. Zerwas was presumed dead.
A memorial Mass was held Sept. 22, 1973, at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Clayton.
With these new clues and help from river residents who remembered the Zerwases, Mr. Scoville was able to contact Mr. Zerwas's widow in Illinois and confirm the registration number with the family, which had kept the Coast Guard investigation report all these years.
Mr. Zerwas's eldest son, Philip M., who was only 5 years old at the time, said while he never really thought his father might be living another life somewhere else, the discovery of the houseboat brings closure for the Zerwas family.
“We had suspected high waves had crashed through a window and knocked him out or perhaps knocked him down and he couldn't manage to escape in time,” he said. “We're incredibly grateful for Dan and Chris for making this discovery.”
Pictures taken with Mr. Scoville's ROV pretty much confirm the family's speculations. The houseboat's front window in the pilot house had been smashed, and Mr. Scoville said he had seen a video of a similar houseboat going under in just 20 seconds.
In her own written recollection of the events surrounding the mystery disappearance of her late husband, Minerva “Minnie” Carol Zerwas said Preston Zerwas probably insisted on finishing his journey to Oswego because Lake Ontario's condition was reported to be good and he had made the trip before.
Mr. Zerwas had even considered letting one of his three sons tag along, and Mrs. Zerwas left a jar of fresh tuna salad in the refrigerator so her husband could have sandwiches when he returned.
Philip Zerwas, Kansas City, Mo., remembers his father as “a family man that cared deeply for all people that depended on him, both at work and at home.”
“My father, Preston, started traveling from Illinois to Clayton in 1956 to work for his uncle every summer during high school and college, until the time he joined the U.S. Navy the fall of 1962,” Philip wrote in an email message to the Times. “In fact, Preston actually worked in Clayton during several of his R&R leaves while in the Navy.”
Preston Zerwas moved to Clayton from Godfrey, Ill., in the spring of 1970 immediately after the funeral of his uncle Gene Springman — who had been president of both the George W. Mercier Marina and the American Boat Lines tour boat of Clayton at the time of his death — to take over operations of the businesses.
“At the time of his disappearance, Preston was building a real estate business, Mercier Realty, in addition to managing the marina and boat lines,” Philip said.
The last remaining question is whether Mr. Zerwas's body will be found inside the boat. Mr. Scoville and Mr. Koberstein said they will respect the family's wishes and do not plan on rummaging inside without the Zerwases' consent.
Philip Zerwas said the family has not decided but is generally in favor of the idea.
To learn more about the discovery, visit Mr. Scoville's website: www.shipwreckstories.com.