Over the Waves: HMS Ontario

Hello everyone, and Happy New Year! I hope you all had a safe and happy holiday season. As I mentioned in my last post, I was back in Ontario visiting family. It was a wonderful visit, and it came to an end far too quickly (as holidays tend to).

While I was home, I was digging through some old books and folders and I came across a newspaper clipping. When I was away at university, my mum used to go through the paper and if she came across an article she thought I'd be interested in, she would cut it out and leave it on my dresser in my bedroom for the next time I was home. This article surfaced around June 2008, and I had read it and then dutifully tucked it away in a notebook. Turns out, the article was about one of the oldest and most well preserved shipwrecks in Lake Ontario, and it fits perfectly with my 2015 Shipster plan. So, thanks Mum!

HMS Ontario

This ship was the largest warship built by the British during the American Revolutionary War. Armed with 22 guns and operated by a crew of 40, she had a short-lived but bright career. She now takes the prize of the most well-preserved, oldest, and largest British warship wrecked in the waters of Lake Ontario. This week, we're looking at the HMS Ontario.

Ship Stats

  • Nationality: British
  • Length: 24 metres
  • Beam: 7.6 metres
  • Weight: 226 tonnes
  • Crew: 40
  • Capacity: 130
  • Year: 1780

Construction began on this "sloop of war" in October 1779 on Carlton Island, home of Fort Haldimand, an important British base in the St. Lawrence River. With masts reaching heights of 70m from her deck, armed with 22 guns, and the support of the British Admiralty at her stern, the HMS Ontario promised to be the jewel of the Admiralty's fight against the American revolutionaries. She was launched in May 1780 and immediately went to work transporting troops, First Nations scouts, civilian merchandise and military supplies along the coast of upstate New York. Her route had her making regular stops at Fort Niagara, Oswego, and Carlton Island, but she was never once approached by American forces and never fired her guns.

HMS Ontario, from Legend of the Lake by Arthur Britton Smith.

With Captain James Andrews in command, the Ontario set out on a voyage from Fort Niagara to Oswego on October 31, 1780. On board she carried 60 British troops, her crew of 40 (mostly Canadians), 4 First Nations scouts, and 9 women and children. Undocumented but strongly suspected to have also been on board were 30 American prisoners of war, heading for Fort Haldimand.

Because of the time of year (and as has been the cause of many shipwrecks since), an autumn gale rose up across the waters and battered the ship. Just over a year from when her keel was laid, she disappeared in the storm. There was no trace of her for the first few days, but eventually, some small wreckage came ashore. A binnacle, some compasses, blankets, hats, and some of her boats. A couple of days after that, her sails were found adrift in the lake. It was evident now that the Ontario had gone down. The British scrambled to try and hide this from the Americans, fearing it would draw attention to the now massive gap in their naval defences.

Later, in 1781, 6 bodies washed up along the New York State shore. That would be the last time that anyone would see anything of the HMS Ontario for the next 227 years.

Fast forward to May 2008. After 35 years of searching, giving up, and searching again, Jim Kennard sets out on another trip to find the Ontario. Kennard had joined forces with Dave Scoville three years prior, and the two had searched over 500 square kilometres of Lake Ontario for the wreck. Using new documents from both American and Canadian archives, they felt they had the location narrowed down, and using side-scanning sonar, they were ready to find out if they were right.

Screenshot of the HMS Ontario's bow, from shipwreckworld on Youtube.

They searched for hours before getting a hit, and they were almost certain that they had found the wreck. Unfortunately, the weather changed, preventing them from launching Scoville's ROV and forcing them to return to land. As soon as the weather broke, they were back out on the water, and the ROV went down to the wreck. What they found was incredible, and you can watch the video of their amazing discovery here. (I highly recommend it).

The ship was found in almost perfect condition, lying upright and at a slight angle. Both of her masts (each with two crows nests, which would turn out to be the feature that positively identified her) were still in tact, as were many of her hatches, and eight of her guns (still mounted on deck).

The most incredible thing (in my opinion) was the glass windows of the quarter galleries (officers' quarters) at the stern of the ship. Two of the windows actually still had their glass, unbroken and completely in place.

The wreck sits in 150 metres of cold fresh water, and this is what has helped keep her in such good condition. With no light, little oxygen, and stable temperatures, degradation of the wreck has been slowed considerably. When you watch the video it's like seeing a wreck that has been on the bottom for days or weeks, not centuries.

The HMS Ontario is still property of the Admiralty, and considered a war grave site. Because of the latter, both Scoville and Kennard are keeping the site a secret so that it remains undisturbed. A folk tale saying that she was carrying a payload of gold to pay the British troops has been determined false, which keeps her safe (you would hope) from any wannabe treasure hunters. Even Kennard and Scoville have both stated they have no desire to return to the wreck, and honestly, I think that's refreshing. Sometimes, wrecks only need to be visited once, and then left alone.

That's it for this week everyone. If you want more information about the HMS Ontario, the book Legend of the Lake by Arthur Britton Smith (1997) has been recommended in numerous sources I've seen.

Have a great week everyone!

So happy to be back from the holidays! If you're interested in checking out my Twitter, if you don't already, click here.

This Friday I'll be doing a piece on the Beverly MI, a tug that was in St. John's for maintenance and that the Chief Engineer, Martin LeDuc, was kind enough to give me a tour of! If you want to check out Martin, he has Twitter as well.

And finally, if you have any ships that you are looking for more information on, please feel free to get in contact with me!