Overview History of the HMS St. Lawrence
During the War of 1812, the Great Lake Ontario was landlocked, forcing both the colonies and the British to build warships on the lake if they wanted to dominate its waters. Along the rough rapids of the St. Lawrence River, the British had built a Royal Naval Dockyard in the town of Kingston which was a base of construction and launch for all British vessels to set sail on Lake Ontario. Named after the river the warship was built on, the HMS St. Lawrence began construction on April 12th 1814 and finally took to the water 156 days later.
As the war progressed, both sides of the conflict, especially the British, understood the importance of Lake Ontario as it was vital in securing a supply and communication line for their troops operating in the colonies and lower parts of Canada. Various British fortifications, such as Fort Wellington which was the largest fortification between Montreal and Kingston, relied on the British naval forces keeping control of the water in order to house supplies and continue to operate as a communications post.
The importance of controlling the waters of Lake Ontario led to a ship building race, as both forces continued to build larger vessels with more weaponry and the ability to transport more supplies. Among the British vessels produced at the naval base in Kingston, the HMS St. Lawrence was the largest of warships produced at its time on the Ontario waters. The St. Lawrence carried 112 guns, was 194 feet in length, housed 800 crew members, and was larger than the British’s current flagship, the HMS Victory.
The naval shipbuilding race continued for the entire duration of the War of 1812; however, neither side wanted to engage in a full scale battle on the Ontario waters. Instead, vessels would pass each other at a distance, possibly firing a few projectiles back and forth, but would never truly engage until one of the ships would sink. Even though both sides understood the vitality of keeping a force upon the lake, it was not necessary to have a full-scale battle as it would have no effect on the land battle.
The HMS St. Lawrence would voyage across the lake, convoying with supplies and troop transport ships while using its size and cannon count to scare off any opposing colonial ships. This theme of long distance, “poking” sea battles summed up the entire war on Lake Ontario. In fact, the greatest naval disaster to occur on the lake during the war wasn’t caused by a naval engagement but was the sinking of the USS Hamilton and the USS Scourge as a result of a major storm in 1813.
The HMS St. Lawrence was never involved in official naval engagement during the war and was decommissioned after the war concluded due to the ship not being able to leave the Ontario waters. The ship was stripped of its cannons and hardware, and was sold to the Morton Brewery in Kingston for a small price of 25 pounds. The deck of the ship was used as a pier as the vessel was run aground and hull was used as storage for brewing materials. After time, the structure of the ship would decay and slip back into the waters and has now become a popular diving site for diving hobbyists.
Rivalry of Commodores Yeo and Chauncey upon Lake Ontario
Gaining control of extremely valuable supply lines upon the waters of the Great Lakes was a crucial objective for both the U.S. and British forces, as this would allow for the quick reinforcement of troops fighting in the land regions surrounding them, leading to overall military success. In the case of Lake Ontario, which was a landlocked body of water surrounded on all sides by areas of land except for the rapids of the St. Lawrence River feeding into the lake from the north, gaining control of the water was a difficult but very important goal. Lake Ontario offered access to areas of Toronto, Niagara, and New York, which if were controlled by the British, could give them a tremendous edge in the battle for the northern territories. Both sides of the conflict established shipyards upon the body of water to manufacture vessels used in both transportation of supplies and to do battle with other opposing ships if needed. The British established their area of shipbuilding operations at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, in the city of Kingston, Ontario to the north, while the U.S. was stationed in Sackets Harbor, New York, a little farther south than the British shipyard. Upon both sides were Commodores determined to gain an advantage on the lake, Commodore James Yeo for the Royal Navy, and Commodore Isaac Chauncey for the U.S. Naval forces . Both sides took turns attacking each others bases of operations in an effort to destroy ships and shipbuilding settlements or capture opposing vessels to be used for their own operations.
“On July 19, 1812, the ships of the Provincial Marine attacked Sackets Harbor in an attempt to take the Oneida, but they were beaten off by fire from shore batteries…The Americans were first out of the gate when the ice cleared at Sackets Harbor and Chauncey sent his ships to York in April 1813, capturing the Duke of Gloucester as well as the canon and supplies intended for the British naval squadron on Lake Erie…It was now the British’s turn, sailing from Kingston with a strong force of infantry towards New York. With the British threatening Sackets Harbor, the Americans burned the Duke of Gloucester which had been captured at York in April and set fire to the General Pike…August 1813 found Yeo and Chauncey snarling at one another off the mouth of the Niagara River, maneuvering for position to attack. Both squadrons, while comparable in size and makeup, were very differently armed, thereby giving each side different tactical advantages and disadvantages” .
With tensions continually rising on the waters of Lake Ontario, carpenters and shipbuilders raced to produce larger ships with more ordnance to keep up with the competition and maintain control of the lake. Moving from August to September 1813, Commodore Yeo had an advantage on the lake with the loss of the USS Scourge and USS Hamilton during a deadly storm and the capture of the Julia and Growet from Chauncey and the U.S. Naval forces. However, Chauncey was able to chase down Yeo in the events known as the Burlington races, in which Chauncey effectively pursued Yeo while moving towards Burlington Bay, badly damaging his flagship at the time, the HMS Wolfe. In need of a new ship, Yeo was able to escape Chauncey’s forces within a storm, returning to Kingston and putting in an order for a new ship of magnitude that had never been seen before upon the Lake Ontario waterways.
“On October 15 Yeo sets sail in his newly built first-rate ship of the line, the HMS St. Lawrence, which was mounted with 112 guns. Chauncey was once again driven from the lake, giving control to Yeo until November 21 when winter set in” .
Just the knowledge of and seeing the firepower coupled with the massive size of the craft caused U.S. ships to back down from any confrontation with Yeo and new powerhouse of a vessel. Just having the ship on the waters of Lake Ontario allowed the Royal Navy to claim Naval dominance over the U.S. in the closing chapters of the War of 1812. Chauncey, in fear of what the British carpenters and shipbuilders had produced, wanted vessels of his own to combat the British flagship. The USS Chippawa and USS New Orleans, each designed to carry 130 total guns, were set into production during the winter of 1814-15, but due a peace between the nations in December 1814 as a result of the treaty of Ghent, the USS Chippawa, USS New Orleans, and HMS St. Lawrence were never able to have their deciding battle within Lake Ontario.
Views about the Royal Navy’s Super Weapon
Many individuals have agreed that “Man has never built anything more beautiful than a full-rigged ship under a press of canvas” and the HMS St. Lawrence was by far no exception to this statement . The HMS St. Lawrence was a massive ship, her sails reaching the height similar to that of a modern day twenty story building while still maintaining the same general design that was common among most Royal Naval vessels. A master shipwright, William Bell, was credited with the design and outline of the St. Lawrence, who originally produced ships for the British in Amherstburg. Bell was in charge of building up Robert Barclay’s fleet of superior Naval vessels, but after the shipyards located in Amherstburg were destroyed during the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813, Bell moved to the Kingston harbor upon Lake Ontario to aid the British Naval forces on its waters. However, shipbuilding materials located at Kingston were scarce, causing Bell to introduce many innovations in the construction of the HMS St. Lawrence which differed from the general British method of producing warships. This was interesting because all Royal Navy ships at the time, whether they were constructed in Upper Canada or across the Atlantic in England, generally had the same design and structure, creating a commonality among the fleet. One of the obstacles that Bell had to work around, for example a lack of ship’s knees, which were important to the overall structure of a sailing vessel, caused rapid innovation and redesign of the HMS St. Lawrence’s structure. The change in construction and design of the ship did not in any way hinder the functionality and beauty of soon-to-be flagship of the Royal Navy, as:
“Sir James Yeo expressed his pleasure with his new flagship in a letter written to the Admiralty, ‘I believe the St. Lawrence has completely gained the Naval ascendancy on this Lake, and I am happy to say, she sails very superior to anything on it.’” .
Word of the British Navy’s new super weapon quickly traveled around Lake Ontario, and the U.S. scrambled to find a way to combat and possibly sink the British monster of a ship. In fact, the United States almost didn’t have to do anything at all, as the HMS St. Lawrence was struck by lightning while on one of its many voyages up and down Lake Ontario, ferrying troops and supplies. The lightning struck the mainmast, killing a number of crew members on-board and damaging the vessels mobility, however the ship was only out of service for a few days before taking back to the waters. In an attempt to destroy the warship, the United States stealthily tried to blow it up with a first-generation torpedo-like device, “a powder keg with a harpoon for jabbing into the ship’s side at or below the waterline” . The attempt was quickly denied by the British forces and actually sparked the Royal Navy to start construction of two more vessels of the same size and carried the same firepower, the HMS Canada and HMS Wolfe. Overall, the HMS St. Lawrence was a force that could not be matched by the U.S. Navy upon Lake Ontario and allowed the British to gain the full advantage of the lake’s supply lines to southern territories.
“The St. Lawrence never entered history for the battles she won. Her memory is preserved for the hostilities she prevented. She was even bigger than Lord Nelson’s Victory. When launched, all enemy ships returned to port and did not venture out again until after peace had been declared” .
HMS St. Lawrence and Post War of 1812
Following the treaty of Ghent, both the Royal Naval forces and the U.S. Navy demilitarized forts and wartime vessels located on the Great Lakes as the conflict had concluded and the United States had defended its independence from European forces. Regarding the HMS St. Lawrence, given that Lake Ontario was again a landlocked body of water and the vessel would not be able to voyage up the rapids of the St. Lawrence River, the British had no ideas on how to dispose of the massive craft. The craft was too large to be used as a merchant ship and at the time many wartime ships were going to be used as breakwaters or wharves to calm the waters surrounding harbors located on the lake. The craft ended up sitting in the harbor where it had been created by the Royal Navy, eventually deteriorating over time as the water of the lake took a toll on the wooden hull of the vessel, causing it to sink partially. The ship remained at this location until a brewery from the local area of Kingston took up interest in the over-sized vessel.
“In 1833, the hull was sold to Robert Drummond, a local shipbuilder and brewer, who had it pumped out and towed to the other side of Kingston, where it was re-sunk. Drummond then had the sides reduced, holes cut into the hull, and a wharf built to attach the vessel to the shore in order to use it as a cordwood wharf to fuel steamboats” .
Drummond relied on the massive size and weight of the craft to hold it in place as the waters leading out of the St. Lawrence moved passed. The body of the ship acted as a pier for customers of the brewery and other individuals to venture abroad and view the details of the flagship firsthand. Below the deck, the interior had been redesigned to house Drummond’s brewery and distillery. The ship had been sold to Drummond for a measly twenty-five pounds, at this time the craft being considered “a remnant of her former majesty”, opposed to 1814 when it struck fear into the eyes of Commodore Chauncey and the U.S. Naval fleet, and costing the British a tremendous 800,000 pounds to construct . Eventually, the ship was weakened by the water once again and slipped into the St. Lawrence River to find its eternal resting place off the coast of Wellesley Island State Park in Ontario. “An invaluable 30-m long portion of St. Lawrence’s lower hull survives in water which is 2.5 m deep” . The remains of the British flagship have become a popular location for divers traveling through or within the Kingston, Ontario area, allowing them to delve into the history of the ship given the title of “the largest and most powerful ship-of-the-line ever to operate on the Great Lakes” .
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Featured Image: Artist rendition of the HMS St. Lawrence being struck by lightning (from eighteentwelve.ca)