Sailing out of Ontario’s historic Port Dalhousie on a glorious late June morning the tree lined shoreline of western Lake Ontario must have looked almost the same the morning of August 8, 1813 just hours after two United States Navy warships, USS Hamilton and British-built USS Scourge, slipped beneath the lake’s surface into its cold, dark waters taking 53 sailors to their watery graves, casualties of the War of 1812.
Pursuing the Royal Navy’s Lake Ontario Squadron the American squadron during the early hours of August 8th is suddenly hit by a violent squall. Built as merchantmen and top heavy with cannons the Hamilton and Scourge quickly take on water, capsize and sink settling upright and intact 88 metres below the surface. The wrecks cannot be more perfect with cannons and crossed cutlasses visible on their decks more than 160 years after their discovery making them unique world-heritage wonders in the realm of marine archaeology.
Resting in Canadian waters, the two ships became a National Historic Site of Canada in 1976 and have been owned and managed by the City of Hamilton since 1980. Sailing out to the wreck site on the Parks Canada research vessel Investigator, just seven weeks short of the 200th anniversary of Lake Ontario’s worst naval disaster, ours would be the first expedition to use a magnetometer to gather data from the wreck site.
On board the Investigator are Parks Canada employees Chriss Ludin (at the helm), Jonathan Moore and Ryan Harris, both senior marine archaeologists. Jonathan oversees the Hamilton and Scourge survey, while Ryan heads up the search for Franklin’s lost ships in the Canadian Arctic. Another member of our team is filmmaker Peter Rowe who is directing and producing a film on the sinking of the Scourge titled Shipwrecked on a Great Lake it is based on the accounts given to American writer James Fenimore Copper by Ned Myers who survived the ship’s sinking.
Found in 1973 by Dr. Daniel Nelson, a St. Catherines, Ontario dentist, and confirmed during 1975, the Hamilton and Scourge have attracted undersea greats such as Jacques Cousteau (1980), Emory Kristof (1982) and Robert Ballard (1990), with additional expeditions in 2007, 2008 and 2009.
“The magnetometer adds another class of data that has not been exploited to date, and could reveal something new or unexpected,” said Jonathan Moore. “Also, I have wondered about the possibility of material having been lost overboard during the initial knock down of the schooners, and whether this has left any trace on the lakebed, beyond the known visually and acoustically confirmed material. Logically, heavy materials such as cannon balls, are most likely to have sunk to the lakebed and to have survived to be detectable today.”
“A magnetometer survey would be used to generate a magnetic anomaly map of the study area to detect debris zones and the possible locations of the wrecks’ knock down positions, given that metal or metal composite objects would have been lost overboard at the time of capsizing.”
In addition to the magnetometer we also used side scan sonar. “Based on an initial assessment of the sonar data we did not detect any major or obvious site change at a scale that is detectable using sonar. For example, the masts standing (on Hamilton) as of 2009 were still standing in 2013,” commented Jonathan. “We also saw that the extent of mussel beds (which cover artifacts) detectable on the lakebed were about the same. Through careful review in the coming weeks of the sonar data we should be able to check on the disposition of other features, for example, any obvious movement of ordnance (cannons on the ship’s deck).”
Unfortunately, over the past couple of decades, quagga mussels, an invasive species of mussel from Europe, were introduced to the Great Lakes by foreign ships pumping their bilge water containing the mussels into the lakes. Quagga mussels now cover the lakebed around the two ships and as our side scan sonar shows the starboard side of Scourge is engulfed by quaggas obstructing the view of the hull, deck, cannons and other ship’s artifacts.
Quagga mussels will eventually encrust both vessels hiding them from clear view; fortunately the pre-quagga 1982 expedition by Emory Kristof, Chris Nicholson, Dr. Dan Nelson, Martin Bowen and Randy Weldon documented both ships.
“The 1982 expedition resulted in the largest 2,000 plus collection of the best photographs collected to date from the wrecks, as well as some colour video”, stated Jonathan Moore. “The high quality colour slides of both wrecks (first time Scourge was imaged) show in great detail the schooners as if frozen in time, a cliché that is appropriate to use in the case of these wrecks. They were used extensively for several sets of archaeological site plans created by researchers. This imagery is doubly valuable now given the subsequent colonization of the wrecks by quagga mussels, that have covered and obscured most of the features photographed in 1982. All of the 1982 slides have now been digitized.”
Quagga mussels have killed the feasibility of bringing both ships to the surface as has been done with Sweden’s Vasa and England’s Mary Rose but with all the research carried out to date it might be possible to build life-size replicas of both ships in the City of Hamilton and introduce the curious to Ned Myers.
Expeditions to the USS Hamilton and USS Scourge
All expeditions and resulting research are group efforts. Once Dr. Daniel Nelson located the Hamilton and Scourge various organizations have played, and some still do, a role in either the exploration, research, mapping, conservation, management, archiving or storytelling of these two magnificent archaeological treasures. They are, the City of Hamilton, Parks Canada, ASI Group, Canadian Conservation Institute, United States Navy, Royal Canadian Navy, Canadian Coast Guard, Canadian Hydrographic Service, Royal Ontario Museum, YAP Films and Peter Rowe Productions Inc., to name a few.
Header Image : Ryan and Jonathan Moore retrieving the tow fish magnetometer at the completion of the expedition.