July 11, 2012

A mighty ship

In 1814, British naval commodore James Yeo sought to gain supremacy over Lake Ontario. Before 1814, both naval squadrons on Lake Ontario exchanged dominance over the lake. The fact that the Great Lakes are practically landlocked meant that any warships on the Great Lakes had to be built on the Great Lakes. At the start of the war, both the British and Americans converted various vessels on the Great Lakes into ships of war. As the war progressed, both sides built a number of ships in order to gain a permanent dominance over Lake Ontario. 

The importance of Lake Ontario cannot be underestimated. If the Americans had gained complete control over the lake, the British would have probably abandoned all of Upper Canada. With American dominance of Lake Ontario American troops could be deployed anywhere along the shores of Upper Canada.
If the British managed to gain control of Lake Ontario, they would have been able to wreak havoc upon New York State. If this were the case, the safety and security of Upper Canada would have been practically assured.

These thoughts plagued commodore Yeo’s mind. By 1814, Yeo commissioned the creation of a new ship, the grandest and largest ship Lake Ontario had seen – the St. Lawrence. This new vessel was the only ship of the line to be launched in fresh water. The St. Lawrence launched in September 1814 with 112 guns and more than 800 crewmembers. This monstrous ship was larger than Lord Nelson’s flagship Victory. 
The St. Lawrence on her maiden voyage
During the ship’s maiden voyage on October 19, the St. Lawrence sailed through a storm and was struck by lightning. The crew suffered casualties and the ship suffered damage, but the vulnerable gunpowder magazine was not struck and the voyage continued. The St. Lawrence never saw combat but she served her purpose. The American fleet was deterred from entering Lake Ontario for the remainder of the war.

Once the War of 1812 ended, the largest ship on the Great Lakes was unceremoniously decommissioned. The ship served as storage space before it was sunk in Kingston harbour.
If you want to see some period vessels in action don’t miss The Navy of 1812: Sailors on the Lakes re-enactment on July 13 – 15 at Navy Hall/Fort George.  Check out the details here.

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