Ontario Scene

Time capsules beneath the Great Lakes

Shona McKay October 13 1980
Ontario Scene

Time capsules beneath the Great Lakes

Shona McKay October 13 1980

Time capsules beneath the Great Lakes

Ontario Scene

Shona McKay

The demise of the Gunilda in the summer of 1911 was an ignoble affair. The stately luxury yacht owned by William Harkness of New York state, heir to the Standard Oil fortune, was sailing a leisurely course along the northern shores of Lake Superior. Ignoring the advice of his captain, Harkness refused to pay a local pilot a paltry sum to steer his ship through the

uncharted waters. As capricious fate would have it, the Gunilda struck and foundered on the McGarvey Shoal, a peak of granite that rises 91 metres from Superior’s bottom near the town of Rossport. Although leaning at an angle that gave the impression of forever cresting an imaginary wave, the sturdy steel-hulled ship remained sound. Harkness, more piqued than injured, left with his party of guests and took the train home.

Returning that same summer to supervise the salvage attempt, the Gunilda’s owner once more eschewed the advice of local boatmen. The result was pure farce. With a last mighty heave, the single tugboat Harkness allowed for the operation managed to shift the weight of the great ship. Suddenly, the Gunilda took a heavy list to starboard and, to the amusement of the local townsfolk who had turned out as they might for a fair, the yacht began to take in water through its lower portholes, which no one had thought to close. Thus was added another contribution to the

soggy but singularly rich archeological trove of the Great Lakes—a heritage that has attracted excited attention last summer.

In the few minutes that it took the Gunilda to sink, she left the realm of reality and became the stuff of myth. Although the story was denied by the Harkness family, it was said the family jewels were still aboard the sunken yacht. As time passed, the cargo of treasure belonging to the white-andgold ship multiplied. As the tales grew grander, the number of salvage attempts increased. That in 1970 a diver

was killed on one of these attempts has only added drama and color to the speculation about the wreck.

But it is the knowledge that the Gunilda lies preserved, almost exactly in the original condition, that keeps her memory so fresh. The crew aboard French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau’s ship, Calypso, currently documenting Canada’s inland wTaters in collaboration with the National Film Board, dove on the Gunilda last summer. (A summer marred last month by the death of Calypso diver Remy Galliano in Lake Ontario, near Belleville.) Cousteau’s son, Jean-Michel, who made the journey down to the legendary wreck in a submersible, was deeply moved by the beauty of the scene that appeared before him in the dark waters. “She is still white, and the gold leaf still shines around her name on the bow,” he said. “In terms of quality, the Gunilda is one of the most surprising and incredible sights we have witnessed within the Great Lakes.”

In his fascination for the mass of tonnage lying silently on the bottom of one of Ontario’s Great Lakes, Cousteau is not alone. There are a reputed 10,000 shipwrecks within the Great Lakes system, and whether a diver is interested in the lyrically famous Edmund Fitzgerald, a huge tanker that sunk in 1975, or French explorer Sieur de LaSalle’s elusive wreck, the Griffon (which one Parks Canada marine archeologist sardonically notes has been found five times a year for the past 50 years), they are coming out in droves. Seventy-five thousand divers are registered with the Ontario Underwater Council. Although not all of them are active, there are enough to create heavy traffic in some of the more popular shipwreck sites. Fathom Five, a 45-square-mile underwater park complete with 19 sunken ships near Tobermory, Ont., was visited by more than 6,000 divers this past summer alone.

It is not just the sheer number of ships that is attracting divers to Ontario waters, but also the number of vessels that have remained intact. The

depth, the cold and the freshwater of the Great Lakes make it possible for vessels that sank as much as 200 years ago to be protected from chemical and environmental destruction. Many of the boats that sank to the deepest levels lie like time capsules, preserving the secrets of their history. Says Cousteau: “The shipwrecks of the Great Lakes are obviously significant. Perhaps one may not be as impressed because the findings are only 100 or so years old. But this continent is very young. From the point of view of historical value and especially considering the quality of preservation, sunken ships are as important here as anywhere else in the world.”

One man who has brought this enchanting wastebin of history to a wide audience is Dr. Daniel Nelson, a St.

Catharines dentist' whose work last month with the Cousteau team attracted wide attention. In 1975, after extensive searching with the aid of sonar, Nelson discovered the location of two 22-metre-long ships lying 15 km off the shore near St. Catharines. Further study proved them to be the Hamilton and Scourge, two American gunboats dating from the War of 1812. Shortly after helping the American force in the siege of York (now Toronto), the two warships lay at anchor on the morning of Aug. 8, 1813. The U.S.S. Hamilton, originally an Ogdensburgh schooner named Diana, and the Scourge, a captured British merchant ship hastily refitted for war, were both top-heavy and awkward with the weight of their cannon. A sudden squall proved too strong for the ships, jvhich capsized within minutes of each other and sank to their 88-metre-deep grave, along with 60 of their crew.

By using remote television probes, Nelson discovered that the ships had remained remarkably intact, but it was not until he accompanied aCalypsodiver in a minisub last month that he was able to see their condition firsthand. “It was only when I saw the figurehead of the goddess Diana near the end of the dive that I knew we were looking at the Hamilton,” he says. “It was only then that the exhilaration started to hit me. Everything was virtually as it was 167 years ago. The deck is still intact and supporting the heavy guns. Even the bones of the lost seamen are still there.” Nelson has no intention of letting his passion for his “two boxes of history” end with a momentary glimpse. A man who professes not to like “secondhand adventures,”he has undertaken the monumental task of trying to finance and construct a program to raise the Hamilton and Scourge. After intensive conservation surveys scheduled to begin next summer, Nelson hopes to build two specially designed display tanks to

house the ships in Hamilton’s Confederation Park. The estimated $7-million cost does nothing to daunt Nelson’s sense of purpose. “There is a fabulous amount of knowledge contained in these two ships. They should be made available to everyone,” he explains. “And to leave the ships where they are presents a problem in security. As technology advances and divers are able to have access to the deep waters, the ships would definitely be destroyed.”

Nelson’s fears for the safety of the Hamilton and Scourge are not without foundation. Many of the Great Lakes’ shipwrecks lying in shallower waters have already been picked clean by souvenir and treasure hunters. In an effort to make sport divers aware of the valuable historical nature of Ontario’s underwater resources, a small group

called the Ontario Marine Heritage Committee began documenting a virgin wreck discovered off Hope Island in Georgian Bay in 1976. Each summer that they returned to photograph the unidentified 19th-century sailing ship, they discovered more of the ship was missing—presumably plundered by people who see a certain distinction in having a brass porthole displayed above the mantelpiece. Barbara McConnell, a chairman of the committee, recognizes the difficulty in educating the underwater community: “Every diver knows when he finds something valuable that if he doesn’t take it, another diver will.”

For McConnell and many other divers who pursue the beauty of a Gunilda or a Hamilton or Scourge in Ontario’s lake waters, the depletion of a wreck site is also the destruction of an experience that cannot be duplicated. Says McConnell: “When I first see a wreck underwater, time immediately ceases. There is a mystery and a uniqueness to the moment. There is an element of history that is inescapable when you consider that people once walked the decks of those ships; that many lost their lives. You know that you are seeing something that most people will never see. It is a totally moving experience.”