ARCHEOLOGY

Ships and scuttlebutt

MAUREEN ARGON July 4 1988
ARCHEOLOGY

Ships and scuttlebutt

MAUREEN ARGON July 4 1988

Ships and scuttlebutt

ARCHEOLOGY

Five years ago, Montreal historian Jean Belisle had a casual conversation that he says changed the course of his life. John Morgan, a descendant of brewing and shipping magnate John Molson, mentioned to Belisle that, according to family folklore, several old ships from the Molson line had been anchored near the family’s former summer home at Ile Ste-Marguerite in Montreal’s east end. With their engines removed and much of their planking stripped by scavengers, those hulks sank at their last anchorage about 150 years ago. Intrigued by the prospect of uncovering a marine cemetery, Belisle investigated—and discovered that, indeed, there was a ship embedded 15 feet deep in the mud, 30 feet offshore.

Since then, Belisle, Montreal archeologist André Lepine and a team of divers have explored the wreck and recorded their findings. The discovery of the steamship Lady Sherbrooke, the researchers say, is a milestone in the history of maritime development. Declared Belisle: “What we have here is unique.” Built in 1817, the Lady Sherbrooke was one of the first paddle steamers in the world. And, according to Lepine, it is one of the few steamships ever excavated in Canada or the United States— and the earliest model excavated anywhere. Lepine added that steamships are significant in documenting maritime history because their development marked a profound technological advance—with wide social, commercial and industrial implications. Said Lepine: “The technology developed so fast that

even four years made a big difference in the structure of the ships.” The Lady Sherbrooke, which plied the St. Lawrence River until 1826, carried both cargo and passengers between Montreal and Quebec City—a trip that the ship completed in less than 24 hours—a dramatic improvement over the two to three days that sailing ships needed.

Team members conduct the excavation only in June because the river’s dense vegetation and the constantly shifting sediment patterns that occur later in summer impede their progress. Since 1984, the team has excavated the engine room, and this year its members hope to complete excavation of the area running from the boiler rooms to the stern—where the passenger cabins were likely located—a distance of about 80 feet. Much of the rest of the year is spent cataloguing the more than 3,000 artifacts that they have retrieved, which include an 18th-century Spanish silver coin, fragments of wooden panelling, pieces of 18th-century Wedgwood china and 19th-century beer bottles.

Meanwhile, area residents have reinforced the notion that there might be more than one ship buried there. According to Lepine, one man said that his father and grandfather remembered how local residents harnessed horses to pull oak planking off the wrecks for use in construction. As the possibility of discovering a graveyard of sunken vessels looms larger, the excavation team’s future seems shipshape.

MAUREEN ARGON