Divers hope to identify 1812 warship in Lake Ontario
A team of divers is set to plunge into Lake Ontario near Kingston, Ont., next week in a bid to confirm the discovery of a legendary Canadian-built ship from the War of 1812, the HMS Wolfe.
In collaboration with marine archeologists from Parks Canada, the divers plan to take detailed measurements, drawings and photographs of a sunken wooden sailing vessel that appears to match the size and last known location of the famous 32-metre sloop: the flagship of British naval commander James Yeo and star of a dramatic 1813 battle west of Toronto that helped thwart the U.S. invasion of Canada.
The suspected discovery comes just three years before the 200th anniversary of the war, adding urgency to the efforts to identify a possible new showcase relic for bi-national commemoration activities.
“We’re hoping it’s the Wolfe,” said Dianne Groll, a Queen’s University psychiatry professor and avid diver who made a preliminary inspection of the wreck site in May.
“We’re 99 per cent sure it is,” she told Canwest News Service on Wednesday. “With any luck, we should have the formal survey done by the end of July.”
The underwater probe, to be carried out by the Kingston-based heritage group, Preserve Our Wrecks, with support from Parks Canada, will include making bow-to-stern measurements of the rotting hulk, producing sketches and photos of joints, ribs and other telltale features of the ship’s construction, and taking core samples of the wood to determine the types of trees used by the builders.
Groll said the wreck has been known about for years and has been studied by federal archeologist Jonathan Moore. Last summer, Kingston diver Kenn Feigelman generated media attention after taking sonar readings and pictures at the wreck site.
The potential find follows the recent discovery in Lake Ontario of the Revolutionary War vessel HMS Ontario, and last year’s Parks Canada-led high-tech probe of the sunken Hamilton and Scourge, two American ships from the War of 1812 that went down in a storm near Hamilton.
The ship, renamed HMS Montreal later in the war, was built on the Lake Ontario shore and played a brief but important role in the crucial struggle against the Americans for control of the Great Lakes.
In a famous 1813 engagement known as the Burlington Races, a damaged HMS Wolfe was under intense fire near present-day Toronto, but just managed to escape the enemy assault by retreating rapidly westward to a gun-protected shore near Burlington Bay.
A defeat in that battle — which came just days after a major U.S. victory on Lake Erie — could have given the Americans free rein over the lower lakes and, according to a leading War of 1812 naval historian, made certain Ontario became “a state of the American union.”
The ship, which was involved in numerous battles throughout the 1812-1814 war, was scuttled years after the war in waters off Kingston, along with several other vessels that had outlived their usefulness in peacetime Upper Canada.
Naval historian Robert Williamson has called the Burlington Races “a pivotal engagement that would determine the outcome of the War of 1812.”
In a 1999 essay published in the journal Canadian Military History, Williamson reconstructed the events of Sept. 28, 1813, using the logbooks of the Wolfe, which had only recently been opened to researchers by the U.S. national archives in Washington.
The historian debunked a popular tale that the British ships had actually vaulted a sandbar to escape their American pursuers, but Williamson concluded that the survival of the Wolfe and the other vessels was a true turning point in Canadian history.
“Yeo’s Lake Ontario naval squadron survived the scrape of 28 September as strong as ever,” Williamson wrote. “In fact, it went on the offensive in the following spring and helped to capture Fort Oswego. . . . By maintaining the integrity of his squadron, Yeo played a far more important role in the events of the War of 1812 that shaped our future than generations of historians have been prepared to grant him.”