This is the Henry B Smith, sunk with all hands on Nov. 9, 1913 - 100 years ago from this Saturday. For Spears story package 1109-city-storm

In October of 1804, a British naval schooner set sail from York (now Toronto) to the Presqu’ile area carrying the entire entourage needed to hold a murder trial.

Besides the captain, crew and some ordinary passengers, HMS Speedy carried the judge, prosecution and defence lawyers, a law clerk, justice of the peace, half a dozen witnesses, and of course the accused and his police escort.

The accused had been arrested in York but the crime happened in the rural area east of there, so that’s where the trial had to be held, with an entire court ferried in from the city.

Speedy was heavily loaded and in poor condition — leaking as a result of dry rot because she was built with green timber. Her captain agreed to sail into stormy weather only after being threatened with court martial. When the ship stopped in Oshawa, a couple of other trial witnesses took one look at Speedy’s condition and refused to board her, feeling it was safer to follow along in their own canoe.

They were right.

Speedy sailed into a blizzard as she approached her final destination, the harbour in Presqu’ile Bay (modern-day Brighton). The canoe made it through the storm just fine, but neither the schooner nor anyone aboard her was ever found.

Canada is a country of shipping, and of shipwrecks. But we seldom hear most of this rich story — with one great exception. Since 2014, Parks Canada and federal politicians have been fixated on one single maritime tragedy — the doomed Franklin Expedition of 1845-1848, with the wrecks of HMS Terror and Erebus.

Divers inspect the bronze bell from the HMCS Erebus in this Parks Canada handout photo. The HMCS Erebus is one of the two Franklin Expedition ships that were lost to Canada’s Arctic in the mid-1800s. Thierry Boyer/Parks Canada/QMI Agency

In February, Parks Canada held yet another Franklin event in Ottawa, showing off artifacts from one ship: plates, a pencil case, hairbrush, bottles, epaulettes, sealing wax. Jonathan Wilkinson, the minister for Parks Canada, made a speech and some people from Nunavut flew in. But as the department keeps telling Canadians about the great mystery of Franklin, the public has a hard time working up enthusiasm.

Mystery? Through many years of searching for these two ships, the Inuit knew where they were all the time. And the crew’s fate? Again, there’s little mystery. They died of cold, hunger and disease, some on board and others while trying to walk south.

The expedition wasn’t even concerned with British North America. Franklin’s goal of finding the Northwest Passage was an attempt to bypass our colony, not to participate in life here.

Parks Canada’s search for Franklin began in 2008 and there have been many Arctic expeditions since, first to find the wrecks, and from 2014 on to study them.

The search had influential backers: former prime minister Stephen Harper was a big fan; he personally announced the 2014 discovery of Erebus, posing for photos but not taking any questions. Parks Canada staff were forbidden to answer questions at first. Harper was on centre stage and very, very happy.

He has always had a personal interest in the Arctic, and has also written that Franklin’s voyage is evidence to support Canadian sovereignty in the north.

Jim Balsillie, the former co-CEO of Research in Motion, joined the search in 2009. He founded and financed a private agency, Arctic Research Foundation, and equipped it to join the search. But when his foundation discovered the wreck of Terror in 2016 — breaking the search rules, according to Parks Canada — the public-private partnership fell apart.

The Harper government’s use of the Franklin story serves to “re-centre the British heritage of the country,” says Tina Adcock, who teaches Canadian history at Simon Fraser University. It’s not, she says, a common approach among historians today.

“This has been made to serve a certain view of history,” with emphasis on Canadian control over the Northwest Passage, she says.

“Franklin is a proxy for Canadian control over the region. That’s why this British explorer has been made to serve narratives of Canadian nationalism.

“He is being used as a flagpole.

“When the government says, ‘Oh, Franklin is important,’ that’s an argument, right? That’s not a fact. That’s an argument being deployed toward certain ends,” Adcock says.

She suggests two better subjects: “a focus on the fur trade or whaling. Both of these had much greater impacts on the kind of local economies and cultures of the Arctic because those were ongoing things,” rather than an expedition that passed by without staying long.

“You talk to any Arctic historian about cultural contact (and) exchange over time and they’ll say the fur trade (and) whaling are way more important” than isolated expeditions.

And she feels the narrow focus on Franklin takes our attention from other topics.

“If we are focussing a lot on Franklin, and on the Erebus and Terror, what does this push aside?

“In 2012, the federal government slashed a whole lot of Parks Canada funding for archaeology and preservation,” but the Franklin funding mostly survived, she says.

“The focus on Franklin, particularly under the Harper government, has taken resources away from other aspects of federal archaeology.”

There’s a different way to learning this history, and it’s right on our doorstep.

A long story of ships, wrecks, vital transportation and survival against heavy odds has played out on the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes. They are a window into our history.

But they are rarely recognized. The working vessels on what Champlain called our “freshwater sea” left few official records, unlike government-sponsored expeditions, and were not part of the traditional study of Canadian history which dealt more with armies, legislatures and institutions.

The SS Charles Price lost with all her crew in the great storm of November 1913. (Handout/Postmedia Network)

Modern historians increasingly ask about ordinary people and their lives, sometimes shown by the artefacts they left behind.

Remains of old ships are among those artefacts.

“Shipwrecks in the Great Lakes speak to larger patterns and networks — commodities, trade, immigration, links to the U.S. and other countries, and so on — that tell us more about Canada’s history than studying great explorers,” writes Daniel Macfarlane, a Canadian who teaches at Western Michigan University.

“The lower Great Lakes-St. Lawrence are Canada’s heartland, where the major cities started, the two solitudes, the majority of the population,” and other themes, he wrote in an email. And the movement of ships tells some of that history.

He adds that “Franklin and ‘great white men’ are appealing for certain segments of the population as a sort of pop history. Honestly, some of the fascination with him is justifications, overt or subliminal, that justify the colonization of Canada by Europeans.”

At the Naval Marine Archive, a non-profit institute in Picton, the database shows there were as many as 32,000 or 33,000 shipwrecks in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence combined.

Paul Adamthwaite knows many of them well. Within 50 kilometres of Prince Edward County alone, the NMA executive director says there are some 750 known wrecks — HMS Speedy among them.

“Nowadays we take (Highway) 401 for granted, but prior to 1840 there were no roads. There were no railways. There was literally no other way to travel,” he says.

And Prince Edward County, jutting out into Lake Ontario, lines up with a series of islands and shoals stretching all the way to the New York shore.

“They represent a barrier with gaps,” he says. “Any ship that loses power, loses sails, loses something might just squeeze through a gap by sheer good luck,” or be wrecked. “We have got the highest concentration of shipwrecks on the Great Lakes, by far.”

OTTAWA -- Once the greatest warship to ever sail the Great Lakes, HMS St. Lawrence was larger than Horatio Nelson's legendary HMS Victory, and bigger than anything else in the American fleet during the War of 1812. (Sketches and photos by Andrew King). for 0830 col King
OTTAWA — Once the greatest warship to ever sail the Great Lakes, HMS St. Lawrence was larger than Horatio Nelson’s legendary HMS Victory, and bigger than anything else in the American fleet during the War of 1812. (Sketches and photos by Andrew King) Photo by Andrew King /Ottawa Citizen

Shipwreck maps of the Picton area mark the sinking of many small ships, especially small cargo schooners in the 1800s — the 18-wheel trucks of their day. They had names like Metcalfe, Ocean Wave, Maggie Hunter, Gazelle, Fabiola, Echo, Olive Branch, Restless, Madcap, Red Bird, Annie Falconer, Fleetwing, on and on. There’s also the 22-gun British warship Ontario, lost in a storm during the American Revolution and found in 2008, intact but 500 feet deep. HMS Ontario is an official war grave.

And there were disasters far greater than these.

• One night in 1949, a piercing ship’s horn sounded and flames lit up the Toronto waterfront. The passenger ship SS Noronic was burning at her moorings.

By morning, at least 118 people were dead, many trapped aboard by fire. The ship’s fire hoses were out of order.

• Even worse, 844 people died when the SS Eastland rolled over at the dockside in Chicago in 1915. She had taken on more than 2,500 people for a one-day pleasure cruise. Later analysis found Eastland to be dangerously top-heavy.

• In 1913, 10 enormous, iron- and steel-hulled freighters were lost with all hands — more than 200 in total — in a single November storm. Most were on Lake Huron. One of these, the Henry B. Smith, was 545 feet long, and was found a century later snapped in half in Lake Superior. (The length is 166 metres, but the shipping industry used feet.)

The Manitoulin Expositor described smaller dramas that day, like this story of six survivors trapped all day and night on a wooden schooner that ran aground: “Capt. McKinnon is 67 years of age and has been sailing 44 years and says it was the worst storm that he ever encountered … All are thankful that the entire crew were saved and the schooner and cargo of lumber are not a total loss.

“Before leaving the wrecked schooner, Mrs. Fitzgerald suggested that they have a little breakfast, so they gathered up some broken boards that were floating around and by pouring on coal oil were able to make a fire and boil a cup of coffee. The Captain says this with bread that was floating around the cabin made the best breakfast that he had ever eaten.”

• History repeated itself in another November storm in 1975, when the Edmund Fitzgerald sank. Like the Smith, she was carrying iron ore in Lake Superior. And like the Smith, the “Big Fitz” broke in two.

• A 338-foot steamer that went down in a 1909 Lake Erie winter storm left a mystery: Crewmen in a lifeboat all died of exposure, but one of them was carrying two big knives and a meat cleaver from the ship’s galley. The mystery cleared up when the captain’s body washed ashore months later, severely slashed. The ship was called Marquette and Bessemer No. 2, and made daily crossings of Lake Erie, usually carrying train cars full of coal.

• Far down the St. Lawrence, the sunken ocean liner Empress of Ireland is the site where 1,022 people drowned in 1914. The liner ran into a coal carrier in fog and sank in 14 minutes.

• “And the Griffon — why aren’t we looking for that?” asks Ottawa artist and historian Andrew King. Launched at Niagara to explore the upper lakes and trade for furs, the barque was lost on her maiden voyage in 1679 on the way home from Lake Michigan with furs. However, she was part of a wave of French exploration deep inland and down the Mississippi. There’s a reason why modern U.S. cities have names like Detroit, Boise, Marquette and St. Louis.

• The oldest and most mysterious underwater site in the lakes is not a ship. It may once have been dry land.

There’s an underwater ridge stretching all the way across Lake Huron from Michigan to Ontario, and recently researchers have spotted what looks tantalizingly like rocks arranged in a structure used for hunting caribou.

The question: Thousands of years ago, was this a land bridge with people living on it?

The wrecks exist in such large numbers because the waterway from Montreal to the great inland cities “was the (Highway) 401 of its time,” says King.

Old photos of the harbour at Kingston, for example, show “masts as far as the eye can see.”

“These cargo schooners would be bringing coal, and barley, and commodity transport. But they didn’t have the navigation that we have today,” so sometimes a ship would hit a reef. “It would break up and lives would be lost.

Wrecks “are just littering the lake floor and divers come and videotape the exploration of these steamers.”

Some have sunk upright and almost intact; others are torn apart.

There are stories of lost gold and silver — payrolls sent to French and British armies in the 1700s.

“These are the stories that I think should be looked at more. The Franklin thing — whatever, I get it. It was tragic, it was interesting. But there are far more interesting tales to be told.

“These are the wrecks of our history that are just sitting there, kind of forgotten. They are an important part of how this country came to be. We depended solely on these ships to survive.”

Ships also carried large numbers of passengers all through the 1800s. Some boasted three decks of passenger cabins above the water line, and the Thomas Jefferson of the 1830s was furnished like a fine hotel.

President William McKinley came all the way from Washington in the 1890s to sail on the first voyage of the cruise ship North West, an elegant ship 386 feet (117 metres) long, painted white, with three black-and-gold smokestacks. The dining room had silver and cut glass; the trimmings were of expensive ornamental woods. Unfortunately North West and her sister ship, North Land, did not make money, as the Great Lakes cruise business operated only from June to September.

Immigrants sailed west by the thousands.

“The topsail schooner Illinois, going up Lake Huron in 1834, was so laden with farm implements and household effects belonging to her passengers that to economize space, wheels were taken off the wagons and hung in the shrouds (the rigging overhead),” writes Fred Landon in his 1944 book Lake Huron.

The Isaac M Scott c. 1910 lost in the Great Storm of November 1913 with 28 lives. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Past generations bought and sold ships just as we buy used cars and trucks. In 1817, the Buffalo Gazette advertised: “FOR SALE a SCHOONER, 40 tons burthen (i.e. cargo capacity), three years service on the Lakes, sails well.” The owner would take cash “or the Schooner will be exchanged for real estate, in or near the village of Buffalo.”

As times changed, the boats changed with them. The 139-foot Erie Queen, designed as a trawler in 1922, was converted to carry freight and passengers until the 1960s. Sold to a scrap metal company, she was towed to New York City in 1969 and docked as a floating nightclub in the East River called The Boat At The River’s Edge. And a former ferry boat from Manitoulin Island became Captain John’s restaurant in Toronto until she sank beside the pier in the 1980s.

Technology transformed shipping, partly driven by competition with emerging railroads.

“As late as the period of the Civil War, 90 per cent of the tonnage on the lakes was sail,” Landon says. But steam power quickly took over in the later 1800s, and by 1906 the first 600-foot-long (183 metres) steam-driven freighters had appeared.

The Eagle, a newspaper in Cape Vincent, N.Y., wrote in 1915 that: “The sailing schooner will soon be a thing of the past. The indications are that it only a matter of time, and a short time at that, that the sailing vessel will have disappeared completely from the Great Lakes.” It wrote that there were 28 schooners left on Lake Ontario where once there had been hundreds at a time.

The sheer number of wrecks is not quite as disastrous as it sounds; some of these wooden ships simply fell to pieces from old age or neglect or both after hard lives.

“They also sank from bad building, rot, lack of maintenance and so on,” Adamthwaite says. “Ships had an expected life of let’s say 10 years.”

And they were pushed until they could sail no more: “There were very few of them that were taken onshore and taken to pieces consciously. Most of them ended up on the beach somewhere as a shipwreck. And there were thousands of ships built on the Great Lakes.”

The freighter Chickamauga, which foundered in 1919 in a moderate gale on the Michigan side of Huron, drew this shrug of an obituary: “She had reached the end of her voyage and died of natural causes.”

But sinking did not always mean being wrecked. Salvage was common.

The Erie Belle, a steam tug, died three times. She came back to life twice. Built in 1862 in Cleveland, she sank in the Detroit River, but was raised and repaired.

She sank again in shallow Lake Erie, and they pulled her up and repaired her a second time.

In 1883, the Erie Belle was trying to free a sailing schooner loaded with timber that had run aground near Kincardine, Ont. Straining for power, the steam tug built up too much pressure in the boiler, which exploded and killed four men. It knocked the rest of the crew into the water. The wreck is gone except for the rusted boiler that still sits in shallow water south of Kincardine in an area called Boiler Beach. A nearby seafood restaurant is called the Erie Belle.

The schooner survived to sail again, but sank a few years later.

Still our federal government is focused on further exploration of Franklin’s ships.

Parks Canada maintains the Franklin expedition is special.

“This was one of the world’s greatest unsolved mysteries for over 160 years,” it said in a written statement when we asked them to discuss why they find it so interesting.

One of two ships from the Franklin Expedition, lost in the Arctic in 1846, is pictured in this underwater radar image. Handout/Parks Canada/QMI Agency

The department calls it “one of the largest, most complex underwater archaeological undertakings in Canadian history and is the subject of significant on-going public interest in Canada and internationally as demonstrated by the release of never-before-seen images from HMS Terror that garnered over 1 million views on YouTube. As an Arctic nation, the compelling story of encounters between Inuit in Nunavut and European explorers is an important chapter in Canadian and Inuit history.”

And it says that its underwater archaeology team has studied more than 250 ships in the past 50 years, notably “the Hamilton and Scourge National Historic Site, the site of two well-preserved War of 1812 schooners sunk in 1813 in Lake Ontario off St. Catharines.

“The Franklin wrecks are not simply a national historic site, but also important and meaningful for nearby communities,” and they will contribute to job creation in the North, the department says.

The fact that the wrecks are in shallow water is causing them to deteriorate quickly, and “there is an urgency to carry forward the archaeological work at the wreck site to gather and preserve unique archaeological information before it disappears.”

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