Once the greatest warship to ever sail the Great Lakes and larger than Horatio Nelson’s legendary HMS Victory, it was bigger than anything else in the American fleet during the War of 1812. This gargantuan warship was “HMS St. Lawrence” and it gained naval supremacy over Lake Ontario during the final months of the war. Later decommissioned and used as a floating warehouse for a brewery in Kingston, Ontario, the mighty warship-turned-warehouse was reportedly bashed to pieces in a storm and sank into the depths of Lake Ontario, lying forgotten under the waves. Intrigued to learn what remains of this impressive ship, I was able to locate the wreck and explore the remnants of this significant piece of Canadian history.
Built in 1814 to take command of the Great Lakes during the War of 1812, it was the only Royal Navy ship-of-the-line to ever be launched and operated entirely in fresh water. At the time, Lake Ontario was landlocked by the shallow water and rapids of the St. Lawrence River downstream and by Niagara Falls at the other end of the lake. This resulted in British ships having to be built on site at the shipyards in Kingston to gain control of the waters that were an important supply route for both British and American forces.
The colossal vessel was built in only ten months and was one of the largest ships of the Napoleonic era measuring 191 feet in length, five feet longer than Horatio Nelson’s HMS Victory. This goliath of the lake was also heavily armed with three decks containing 112 cannons – eight more than Nelson’s warship. Manned with a crew of 800 men, it was launched in September of 1814 ready to take on the American fleet under the command of British naval commodore Sir James Lucas Yeo, with Captain Frederick Hickey.
Patrolling the waters of Lake Ontario on the hunt to decimate any American ships in its path, the floating behemoth out-sized and outgunned anything the Americans had on the water. Out of fear the monster ship would blow their ships out of the water if confronted, the American fleet was kept their precious ships hidden safely in harbours with a clandestine attack planned to sink the mighty warship. Fearing the St. Lawrence would turn the tide of the war, the Americans sent in a secret team of operatives to sink the St. Lawrence in Kingston’s harbour with sea-mine of made out of a gunpowder filled keg. They failed in their mission to sink the new threat and a few months later, the War of 1812 ended.
Her immense presence on the lake deterred the U.S. fleet from ever setting setting sail and ironically the HMS St. Lawrence never saw action. A few weeks later in 1814 hostilities came to an end, and following the Treaty Of Ghent the Great Lakes were demilitarized. The HMS St. Lawrence had successfully gained control of the lakes and the War of 1812 was over.
Afterwards, the mighty ship was deemed unnecessary and was de-commissioned, only one year after it was launched. Sitting idle at the docks of Kingston’s Navy Bay, it was finally stripped of its cannons and hardware and sold for a mere 25 pounds. The massive hulk of a ship was then reportedly used as a pier and floating warehouse for Kingston’s Morton Brewery. Eventually after years of neglect and decay, the once mighty warship was bashed to pieces in a storm and slipped beneath the waves.
With the last known location of HMS St. Lawrence to be in front of Morton’s Brewery sometime in the mid-1800s, the final resting place of the ship was approximated using old maps and local diver reference. The original Morton Brewery buildings still exist on the Kingston waterfront so the underwater wreck most likely lies nearby.
Equipped with an underwater camera and snorkeling gear, I entered the approximate area of where the HMS St. Lawrence reportedly went down, swimming east about 500m into the small bay of Morton Brewery indicated on the old map.
Seeing only weeds and rocks, I soon thought I was in the wrong area until I came across what looked like a mooring stone. Swimming around the area of the mooring stone through more weeds, some wood timbers came into view. There before me lay what was left of the greatest warship to ever sail the Great Lakes.
After two hundred years of decay and neglect, not much is left of the once grand ship, a line of old wooden ribs form the outline of the ship that lies on the lake bottom in about ten to fifteen feet of water. Protruding iron fasteners are visible among the encroaching weeds. After I swam and filmed the entire length of the shipwreck I tried recording what I could of this important Canadian relic. Private waterfront homes and a seawall surround the wreck site, with the hulk of the ship hidden below the waves, out of sight and decaying on the lake bottom.
The HMS St. Lawrence played a pivotal role in turning the tide of war and its contribution to curbing further conflict should lend itself to a more deserving honour. It seems unfitting that the greatest warship to ever sail the Great lakes now lies quietly forgotten below the very waters it used to protect.
Andrew King, Posted April 30th, 2023. From an earlier column in the Ottawa Citizen, 2014
I am keen on the history of 1812 and I like Great Lake Shipwreck stories, so this was a fun read. Thank you for doing this.