Lake Ontario

Via the St. Lawrence Seaway, Lake Ontario is the region’s gateway to the world

Lake Ontario, known as the Lower Lake, sits below the 380 foot escarpment that creates Niagara Falls. The Falls kept Lake Ontario separate from the rest of the lakes until the 1830s, with the first Welland Canal. This isolation and its natural connection to the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence River, made the Lake Ontario region a natural first for development by European Settlers.

The first steamboat to operate on the Great Lakes cut through Ontario’s waters in 1817. By the 1820s communities around Lake Ontario were firmly established and prospering while the vast majority of the rest of the Lakes were decades or centuries behind.

The Lake Ontario region, a great industrial innovator, recognized its own assets and exploited them to grow as a community. The cataracts at Niagara were overcome with the construction of the Welland Canal which opened up cost-effective trade between the Lower Lake and its neighbors. Over time a series of canals were constructed culminating in the St Lawrence Seaway System being opened in 1959 – truly opening the Great Lakes to a world economy.

Beautiful green coastline view of Lake Ontario

Lake Ontario, the easternmost of the Great Lakes, has a rich history and many unique characteristics. Here are some cool facts about Lake Ontario:

  1. Smallest of the Great Lakes: Lake Ontario is the smallest of the Great Lakes by surface area, covering about 7,340 square miles (19,000 square kilometers). However, it is the second smallest by volume, holding approximately 393 cubic miles (1,639 cubic kilometers) of water.
  2. Lowest Elevation: Lake Ontario sits at the lowest elevation of all the Great Lakes, at about 243 feet (74 meters) above sea level.
  3. Natural Outlet: The lake serves as the natural outlet for the Great Lakes system, draining into the Saint Lawrence River, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean.
  4. Deep Waters: Despite its smaller size, Lake Ontario is relatively deep, with a maximum depth of 802 feet (244 meters) and an average depth of 283 feet (86 meters).
  5. Niagara Falls: The lake receives water from Lake Erie via the Niagara River, which includes the world-famous Niagara Falls. The water from Lake Erie travels over the falls before reaching Lake Ontario.
  6. Thousand Islands: The lake is home to the Thousand Islands, an archipelago of more than 1,800 islands located in the Saint Lawrence River, which begins at the lake’s eastern end. These islands are a popular destination for boating and tourism.
  7. Toronto: The largest city on the shores of Lake Ontario is Toronto, Canada’s largest city and a major cultural and economic center. Other significant cities on the lake include Hamilton and Kingston in Ontario, Canada, and Rochester in New York, USA.
  8. Important Ports: The lake supports significant commercial shipping traffic, with major ports in Toronto, Hamilton, and Rochester. These ports are crucial for trade and transportation.
  9. Diverse Ecosystem: Lake Ontario supports a rich and diverse ecosystem, including various fish species such as salmon, trout, bass, and perch. Efforts are ongoing to preserve and protect the lake’s natural environment.
  10. Historical Significance: The lake has played a crucial role in the history of the region, from Native American settlements to European exploration and colonization. It was a key route for trade and transportation.
  11. Lake Ontario’s Name: The name “Ontario” is derived from the Huron word “Ontarí’io,” which means “great lake” or “beautiful water.”
  12. Ice Volcanoes: During winter, the lake’s shores can form “ice volcanoes,” which are mounds of ice created by waves pushing water through cracks in the ice, resulting in mini-eruptions of water and ice.
  13. Military History: The lake has been the site of significant military activity, particularly during the War of 1812 between the United States and Britain. Forts such as Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York, and Fort Henry in Kingston, Ontario, are historical sites related to this period.
  14. Water Source: Lake Ontario serves as a vital source of drinking water for millions of people living in the surrounding regions in both the United States and Canada.
  15. Recreational Activities: The lake is a popular destination for recreational activities such as boating, fishing, swimming, and bird watching, with numerous parks and beaches along its shores.

These facts highlight the unique characteristics and importance of Lake Ontario within the Great Lakes system and the broader North American context.

Additional Information

Native Fish: smallmouth bass, walleye, lake trout, whitefish, burbot (freshwater cod), yellow perch, rainbow smelth, efforts are underway to restore native species with stocked non-native salmon
Mammals: moose, wolves, and coyotes
Birds: Bald Eagle and osprey
Forests: Northern Side – sugar maples, red maples, and red oaks. Southern Side – eastern hemlock, beech, and black cherry
Dimensions: 193 miles long x 53 miles wide
Depth: Average 283 feet, max 802 feet
Surface Area: 7,340 sq miles
Volume: 393 cubic miles
Elevation: 243 feet above sea level
Shoreline Length: 712 miles, including islands
Outlet: St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic
Retention/Replacement Time: 6 yrs
Population: 2.8 million US/ 2.8 million Canada

Several museums in the United States are located on or near Lake Ontario, offering insights into the region’s history, culture, and natural environment. Here are some notable ones:

  1. Sodus Bay Lighthouse Museum (Sodus Point, New York):
    • Located in a historic lighthouse, this museum focuses on maritime history, including exhibits on the lighthouse itself, shipwrecks, and local maritime activities. The lighthouse offers beautiful views of Lake Ontario.
  2. Seaway Trail Discovery Center (Sackets Harbor, New York):
    • Situated in a historic building, this center features exhibits on the Seaway Trail, a National Scenic Byway that runs along the Great Lakes, including Lake Ontario. The museum highlights the region’s natural and cultural history.
  3. H. Lee White Maritime Museum (Oswego, New York):
    • Located in the Oswego West Pierhead Lighthouse, this museum offers exhibits on the maritime history of Lake Ontario and the Oswego area. It includes a collection of ship models, maritime artifacts, and information about local shipwrecks.
  4. The Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum (Oswego, New York):
    • This museum is dedicated to the history of Fort Ontario and its role as the only refugee camp in the United States for Holocaust survivors during World War II. It offers exhibits on the refugees’ experiences and the history of the camp.
  5. Fort Ontario State Historic Site (Oswego, New York):
    • This historic fort played a significant role in various conflicts, including the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, and the War of 1812. The site includes a museum with exhibits on the fort’s history and military artifacts.
  6. Genesee Country Village & Museum (Mumford, New York):
    • Although not directly on Lake Ontario, this large living history museum near Rochester offers a glimpse into 19th-century life in the region, with historic buildings, costumed interpreters, and exhibits on rural life in New York State.
  7. Rochester Museum & Science Center (Rochester, New York):
    • This museum features exhibits on the natural history, cultural heritage, and technological advancements of the Rochester region. It includes interactive displays, a planetarium, and collections related to the Great Lakes.
  8. Strong National Museum of Play (Rochester, New York):
    • Also located in Rochester, this museum is dedicated to the history and exploration of play. It features extensive collections of toys, games, and interactive exhibits, making it a great destination for families.
  9. Monroe County Historical Society (Rochester, New York):
    • This museum focuses on the history of Monroe County and the Rochester area, including exhibits on local industry, notable residents, and the impact of Lake Ontario on the region’s development.

These museums provide a diverse array of exhibits and collections that highlight the rich cultural, historical, and natural heritage of the Lake Ontario region in the United States.