FOLLOW-UP

Ships of a bygone war

DAVID TODD November 30 1987
FOLLOW-UP

Ships of a bygone war

DAVID TODD November 30 1987

Ships of a bygone war

FOLLOW-UP

They went down in a sudden, violent squall in the early morning hours of August 8,1813, taking 53 sailors to their deaths. For 160 years the 73-foot Hamilton and the 57-foot Scourge, two War of 1812 American warships, have remained in the chill, dark waters of Lake Ontario. But in 1973 a search team spearheaded by Royal Ontario Museum research associate Daniel Nelson located the ships with sonar, lying about six miles offshore near St. Catharines, Ont. Since then, researchers have used unmanned submersibles to take dramatic photographs of the vessels—both well-preserved because, among other things, the near-freezing waters have kept the ships from contracting and expanding. Now, a team of experts is planning a 300-foot dive to the wrecks next spring. The purpose: to evaluate the possibility of bringing the ships to the surface and displaying them on dry land. Said William McCulloch, an alderman in Hamilton, Ont., the city that holds title to the ships: “This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance. Archeologically, these ships are extremely significant.”

To date, the project to raise the ships has proven to be a mammoth undertaking. Last year Ontario’s ministry of citizenship and culture, which oversees historical projects, appointed a feasibility-study steering committee with representatives from Parks Canada, the Ontario Heritage Foundation and the City of Hamilton. The committee, in turn, oversees the work of a nine-member technical study team consisting of archeologists, engineers and conser-

vation experts. In spite of criticism that the project is proceeding too slowly, researchers say that they must evaluate all, available data be-

fore going ahead with any attempt to raise the ships. And

they will produce—possibly by late next year—a report on the best means of surmounting the project’s many

obstacles.

Those obstacles appear formidable. The Hamilton and the Scourge lie deep on the flat lake bed. Researchers will need samples from the wooden hulls to determine if the ships are strong enough to be brought to the surface. They must also establish the

best means of chemically pre-

serving the vessels if they are put on permanent display. Study-team members say that the dive next year will provide them with samples from the ships for testing and study.

If raising the Hamilton and the Scourge proves feasible, the vessels will find safe harbor in Hamilton. In 1980, at the urging of McCulloch and then-Mayor John MacDonald, the city acquired title to the ships, originally held by the U.S. department of the Navy, after going through U.S. government channels. Hamilton also provides approximately $125,000 a year to operate its HamiltonScourge Project, which collects and provides information on the ships and the effort to raise them. Project researchers have put together archeological models and drawings of the vessels, as well as an inventory of artifacts on the underwater site, including cannons and anchors. And the city has set aside five acres of its Confederation Park as a display site. Said McCulloch: “It could be a real economic boon to the city.“

Still, it will be years before the ships ever see the light of day. And Nelson, who left the project in 1982, charges that poor management has delayed the raising of the ships. Declared Nelson: “All that has really been accomplished is window dressing.” But researchers maintain that they need all possible data before they actually attempt to raise the wrecks. Said HamiltonScourge Project research and co-ordinating officer Emily Cain: “Why can’t you have a baby the night that it is conceived? Because certain tasks have got to be done first—and done well.”

DAVID TODD

in Hamilton