Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Scourge of York

The Hamilton Spectator reported this week that the city is considering allowing a new dive to the site of the Hamilton and the Scourge this summer. Both ships served in the War of 1812, and now lie in about 80 metres of water off St. Catharines. (I wrote about a recent dive to the site last year. Click here to read that post.)

Historians believe the two schooners were on hand for one of the most dramatic episodes of the war. On the morning of April 26, 1813, a massive, 14-ship American fleet appeared off York (present-day Toronto). Aboard were between 1,600 and 1,800 infantrymen under the command of Brigadier General Zebulon Pike. For months, the citizens of Upper Canada's tiny capital had been fearing just such an attack. Their worst nightmare was about to come true.

Guarding York were four companies of regulars, about 300 Canadian militiamen, and about 50 Native warriors. All were under the command of Major General Roger Hale Sheaffe. Numerically, it wasn't even close to a fair fight.

Predictably, the battle was brief, but both sides suffered heavy losses. Shortly after the landing, near today's Sunnyside Beach, the American ships unleashed a fierce bombardment with their long-range guns, pounding the cluster of wooden buildings along the shore. Sheaffe did what he could, but his men were taking heavy losses, especially after Pike ordered his troops to charge forward with their bayonets.

Sheaffe knew that victory would not be his on this day. But he had one more trick up his sleeve: as the Americans drew nearer to Fort York, he ordered his men to blow up the fort's powder magazine. This lethal maneuver killed 38 American soldiers, and injured over 200 more. The blast also fatally wounded Pike.

The Americans held York for more than a week, during which time their undisciplined troops caused a significant amount of damage. The greatest of these outrages was the burning of Upper Canada's first parliament buildings. The British and Canadians never forgot about this, according to many historians. In 1814, in one of the closing acts of the war, the British raided Washington, and held it for about a day. During this brief time, they were sure to burn down the White House and a number of other government buildings.

If they were indeed at the Battle of York, the Hamilton and Scourge would have played a pivotal role in landing men on the beach on the morning of the rout. Today, they lie in silence, under an ever-thickening blanket of zebra mussels.

To read the full Hamilton Spectator piece, click here.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Return of the Wolfe

Last year, I wrote about the discovery of a 200-year-old shipwreck thought to be the Wolfe, the flagship of Sir James Lucas Yeo, commander of the British fleet on the Great Lakes during the War of 1812.

Unlike many of her contemporaries, the Wolfe survived the war, though just barely. She was heavily damaged in a battle with the American fleet on Lake Ontario known as the "Burlington Races." The battle was essentially a draw, but the fact that the British fleet survived meant the lake stayed in British hands, at a time when the war on the lakes was not going very well for the His Majesty's navy.

Ironically, the Wolfe met her end because she was no longer needed. With the signing of the peace treaty at Ghent in 1814, the British scaled back their naval presence on the Great Lakes. British interest in North America fell even further when Napoleon escaped from exile just eleven days after the treaty was signed and restarted hostilities on the continent. So the venerable old Wolfe, stripped of her armaments, was sent to the bottom of the lake she played such a key role in defending.

But she would not be entirely forgotten. Last summer, it was announced that divers had found wreckage they believed to be the remains of the Wolfe. To protect the wreck, her location was kept secret, but the discovery came on the heels of the discovery of HMS Ontario, an even older British warship that went down during a storm in 1780, at the height of the American Revolution. The Ontario is now the oldest identified shipwreck on the lakes.

This summer, a group of volunteer divers from Kingston, including a professor from Queen's University, will get to work trying to positively identify the remains as those of the Wolfe. If they do, the news will come at an auspicious time; 2012 marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of hostilities, and just when the continent begins to turn its eyes back to this long-ago conflict, the Wolfe will rise again.

For the full piece on the efforts to identify the Wolfe, click here.

To read about last year's discovery of HMS Ontario, click here.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Around the Sound

Last week, we decided we could take it no more. My wife Amy and I had been holding up rather well without our beloved Georgian Bay for much of the winter. But the forecast called for clear skies north of Toronto this Easter weekend, and we sensed that this was our chance. So early Friday morning we loaded the car, strapped the bikes to the roof, and pretended it was July.

Visiting small communities like Parry Sound in the off-season is one of my favourite ways to pass Ontario’s long, often frustratingly slow springs. The hordes of campers and cottagers haven’t arrived yet, so these places remain largely shrouded in silence. But you’ll always find a warm welcome, as the locals, looking forward to the boost the warm weather will soon bring, start to get ready for what will soon be upon them.

Still, there were times this weekend when we felt like we had the whole area all to ourselves.

The first stop was Killbear Provincial Park, one of the most stunning in the province’s system. It also has one of the longest average stays. This means, quite simply, that people come here and set up for weeks, if not months, which makes it pretty tough to get a campsite unless you want to take a stab at making a reservation in early February. Once, a few years ago, we managed to snag a spot here and marvelled at the site next door, where the occupants had erected a fully functional workshop, complete with a workbench, roof, and power tools.

Today, however, other than a few deer gingerly picking their way along the main road, Killbear was ghostly quiet. The park was actually gated shut, but we were able to make our way around on our bikes and then dodge the fallen trees, snowdrifts, and other remnants of winter that blocked the main road and many of the side trails. Still, at this spot near the park’s new visitors’ centre, the Bay sparkled like it does at high summer (if you ignore the snow that still blankets the opposite shore, of course).

Parry Sound got its start as a lumber town in the mid-nineteenth century. The railway followed soon after, and remains a major part of the town’s identity. The old trestle bridge that spans the Seguin River here was built in 1908 and is the longest in the province. If you sit on the town dock and watch a train pass, like Amy is about to do here, it looks almost like it’s flying right over the centre of town (this is especially true at night, when only the trains’ lights are visible).

It was striking to sit here yesterday, feeling the biting wind blow off the still partially frozen harbour, and think that in a few short weeks, the Bay will be abuzz with pleasure boats, tour boats, and even floatplanes. Back onshore, the bars, now quiet and dark, will be packed. The energy will be palpable.

And then, all too soon, the cycle will begin again, and the area will be returned to the locals – and the deer.

For more on Parry Sound, click here.

For more on Killbear Provincial Park, click here.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

A distinguished career

Another beauty in Toronto's harbour right now is the Canadian Leader. According to, the Leader entered service in 1967, shortly after the Canadian Miner (see below). Back then, her name was the Feux-Follets. She was the flagship of a fleet owned by a Montreal-based company called Papachristidis Shipping Ltd.

In 1972, she was sold to Upper Lakes Shipping of Toronto, which owns her to this day, and renamed the Canadian Leader. Boatnerd descibes the Leader as a "classic Great Lakes bulk steamer." She certainly cuts an interesting profile in Toronto, where she's moored at what was once the terminal for the Spirit of Ontario, the ferry that briefly linked Toronto and Rochester. Unfortunately, the ferry service proved unsustainable. But at least the terminal, which looks like it was just finished yesterday, is being used for something close to its original purpose.

The Leader has certainly had an interesting career on the lakes. She's been involved in at least four scrapes, mostly involving groundings and minor collisions with docks and bridges. The most recent of these incidents appears to be a September 2005 grounding on the St. Lawrence River.

Still, a forty-two-year-old iron boat is bound to get a little scuffed up, and its nothing a little trip to the drydock won't fix.

To read the entry on the Canadian Leader, click here, then search for "Canadian Leader" using the box on the left-hand side.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Big city, big laker

The Canadian Miner is also moored in Toronto harbour right now. According to, the big freighter was actually built in two halves in 1965. The bow and stern sections were later welded together and the boat entered service as the Maplecliffe Hall shortly afterward.

In 1988, her original owner, Canada Steamship Lines, sold the Maplecliffe Hall to a Toronto company, which renamed her the Canadian Miner. She still prowls the Great Lakes, and looks to be in excellent shape after forty-four years of service.

We happened across the Miner while cycling back from Cherry Beach last weekend. Behind her is the Canadian Ranger, which I've written about before on this blog. Click here to read those entries.

In a sure sign of spring, the shipping season appears to be off to a flying start, at least on Lake Ontario.

It's a different story up on Lake Superior, however, where winter still appears to have some fight left in it. One freighter captain learned this the hard way yesterday; the Lee A. Tragurtha got stuck in the ice off Duluth and had to be released by a Coast Guard cutter. Click here to read more about that.