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02 January, 2012

WAR SHIP BEACHED IN SOUTHAMPTON



The War of 1812 was fought between the United States and Great Britain from June 1812 to the spring of 1814.  The main land fighting occurred along the Canadian Great Lakes border with a number of the more notable naval battles taking place on Lake Erie.  From our Canadian history studies at school, we remember the names Sir Isaac Brock, Laura Secord, Charles de Salaberry and the great Shawnie Indian Chief Techumseh who was killed fighting for the British in the Battle of the Thames.

On January 1st, the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 began officially but, at the Bruce County Museum  & Cultural Centre, work for a well-planned celebration of the historical period has been underway for some time.  Here's part of an amazing and exciting story, particularly for those of us living on the shores of Lake Huron in Southampton.

The H.M.S. General Hunter by artist Peter Rindlisbacher

The General Hunter, a former British war ship from the War of 1812, was discovered by accident some 10 years ago on Southampton's beach and was subsequently painstakingly excavated by some of the best archaeologists in the world who all volunteered for the project.

"It was one of the biggest finds on the Great Lakes," said marine archaeologist and project coordinator Ken Cassavoy.  The ship, which was excavated revealing a wealth of artifacts from three military entities - American, British and a Newfoundland regiment, was also re-buried twice in order to preserve her and, today, she lies once again beneath the sand.   The Hunter was captured in the famous Battle of Lake Erie by the American Admiral, Oliver Hazard Perry.

A replica however, is about to be built by a group of talented local enthusiasts in the Bruce County Museum, complete with one of the masts and three of the 10 cannon found in the beach excavation.
The mammoth 32 1/2 ft. mast weighing 1000 lbs (pictured to the left) was recently raised in the museum by a corps of volunteers from the Marine Heritage Society and the Propeller Club, under the the direction of Mike Sterling who used the principles of Archimedes, the ancient Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer, astronomer and inventor of mechanical devices such as the block and tackle that was used to lift the mast into place.

Beginning in the new year, construction on the deck of the General Hunter replica will begin with every detail meticulously worked out by ship recording and sailing expert Stan McLellan.

"This is a massive undertaking," says Cassavoy, "but we are very fortunate to have living in this area some of the greatest minds when it comes to detail, historical fact, and the ability to bring it all together to make it happen.  There are going to be celebrations all along both sides of the Great Lakes in 2012.  It's going to be exciting and, especially, here in Southampton with our direct tie to the War of 1812."
Mike Sterling, project co-ordinator Ken
 Cassavoy and Stan McLellan discuss the
precise details of erecting the ship's mast. 

The ship was discovered in April, 2001 when low lake water levels and a spring ice scour uncovered about a dozen of the ship’s frame tips, pushing up through the sand of the beach.

After a series of archaeological excavations of the wreck and years of historical research the find was  identified as the British naval brig General Hunter.  It was built in 1806, and served as a Provincial Marine transport ship on the Upper Lakes.  During the War of 1812 it took part in a number of successful actions as part of the British Navy squadron based at Amherstburg (Fort Malden), Ontario.  The General Hunter was ultimately captured by the Americans in the famous “Battle of Lake Erie” in 1813.  Following the war, in 1815, with its name shortened to Hunter, the ship was sold to a private buyer in the United States.  It was later purchased by the U.S. Army as a transport vessel and made several voyages during the spring and summer of 1816 carrying U.S. army material and men to various Upper Lakes ports.

According to a letter written by U.S. Army General Alexander Macomb to the U.S. Secretary of War, a major Lake Huron storm pushed the Hunter ashore and wrecked it on a remote Canadian beach on August 19, 1816.  Details in the letter and an attached legal declaration by the crew, found in the U.S. Archives in Washington, clearly identified the wreck location as that of the present-day Southampton beach.  All eight crew members and the two young passengers survived, managing to crawl down the broken mainmast and on to the beach as the ship was battered by wind and waves.  The crew rowed and sailed the small ship’s boat down the lake to Detroit, arriving a week after the ship was wrecked on the beach.
The Hunter as it was uncovered by archaeologists.
The General Hunter lay buried under the beach sand for nearly two centuries before its timbers were discovered pushing up through the sand.  The ship was fully excavated and all artifacts were removed.  Some of those artifacts, including a unique swivel cannon found on the wreck, can be seen in an exhibit at the Museum & Cultural Centre in Southampton.  The rest of the artifacts are undergoing conservation treatment at the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa.  In some cases it will take several years to complete conservation but all artifacts ultimately will become part of the shipwreck exhibit at the museum.

In the spring of 2006 a dramatically altered beach profile and the continuing low lake levels, once again exposed a large number of ship timbers and put them at risk of serious damage.  The temporary breakwater was installed immediately and tons of sand was put in place, to keep this important shipwreck and the historic work barge that is buried beside it ,safe from the ravages of Lake Huron wind and waves.

A major study in 2005 set out a plan for next possible steps in the Shipwreck Project.  Consideration of this plan began in early 2007.  Those interested can see the plan “Southampton Beach Shipwreck Project: Recovery, Conservation and Display Preliminary Study,” at the Bruce County Libraries in Southampton and Port Elgin or at the Bruce County Museum & Cultural Centre in Southampton.  All the details of the shipwreck discovery, excavation and identification are also available at the same locations.

I find all of this extremely fascinating and will definitely photograph the replica ship for Wrights Lane when the museum project is completed later this year.

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