One man’s quest to recover shipwreck artifacts from Lake Ontario
Belleville wreck hunter Ed Burtt is anxious to start recovering artifacts from the bottom of Lake Ontario near Brighton where HMS Speedy disappeared during a fierce storm in 1804.
Carola Vyhnak, Special to the Star
BRIGHTON, ONT.—She was in trouble from the start. Rotting and full of leaks, His Majesty’s Ship Speedy was in no shape to sail Lake Ontario, much less carry the who’s who of Upper Canada from York to Newcastle, 150 kilometres away.
But over the captain’s protests, the 80-foot warship was forced to make the trek east for an important murder trial in October of 1804. Battling a sudden, vicious storm, she struck rock lurking beneath the waves and sank, taking everyone on board to an icy death.
Two centuries later and 22 years after finding her remains off Presqu’ile Point in Brighton, 90 minutes east of Toronto, wreck hunter Ed Burtt believes it’s high time the artifacts were recovered so everyone can appreciate a little-known part of Canada’s heritage.
“This is the most historically significant archeological site that changed the history of Canada,” says the 72-year-old Belleville diver.
Worried about the wreckage rotting on the lake bottom, he’s anxious to haul up relics that include a ship’s bell with an “S” still visible. But that can’t happen until a government-approved site is found to exhibit the items.
It was Oct. 7, 1804 and the trial of Ogetonicut, a native charged in the murder of a white man, was about to start in the tiny colony of Newcastle. A successful trial there would pave the way for the establishment of a district town.
HMS Speedy had been languishing in York harbour for months, taking on so much water she had to be bailed out daily. Hastily built with green timber by the British government in anticipation of a war with U.S. colonies, the seven-year-old schooner was pressed into ferry service.
More than 20 crew and passengers boarded the boat, including the manacled prisoner, trial judge, Ontario’s first solicitor-general and other government officials, police officer, witnesses and two children.
The Speedy let a soft breeze carry her eastward. Sailing past the Scarborough Bluffs, as the story goes, ship and passengers were cursed by Ogetonicut’s mother doing a witch dance over his probable hanging at the end of the trial.
As the Speedy approached her destination the next day, a hurricane wind and snow squalls lashed down from the northeast. The square-rigged ship couldn’t sail directly into the wind in the channel so Captain Thomas Paxton continued east in an attempt to turn and tack back into the bay.
With sodden sails and water pouring in, the schooner was in deep distress in the pitch darkness. Paxton knew he had to steer clear of a submerged rock formation known as the Devil’s Horse Block but what he didn’t realize was that magnetic fields on the lake bottom were throwing off compass readings by as much as 22 degrees.
Off course, the Speedy ran directly into the rock pinnacle, tearing a huge hole in her hull. Ship, crew and passengers vanished into the black water.
After the loss of so many prominent members of Upper Canada society, and with fears that a curse caused the sinking, Newcastle was deemed unsuitable as capital of the district and Cobourg was chosen instead.
Ed Burtt’s interest in the underwater world dates back to his teenage years. Parlaying a “passion of the chase” into a career, he earned a reputation as a top-notch diver and wreck finder.
As the founder of Ocean Scan Systems, a high-tech underwater search company, Burtt has hunted the Great Lakes, worked with police forces and sought out sunken treasure for Mexico and Cuba. In the 1970s, he made it his mission to find the Speedy.
Years of exploring the waters around Presqu’ile — an area dubbed the Sophiasburgh Triangle for its legendary ability to swallow ships whole — turned up a dozen wrecks but the warship eluded him.
Then in 1990, after buying a magnetometer and doing extensive research to pinpoint the Speedy’s location, he hit pay dirt. In the murky depths, pieces of history emerged before his team’s eyes: two broken masts; cannon balls littering the lake bottom; a long groove made by a dragging anchor; moccasins with a chain attached.
“The first time we saw a mast and then the hand-forged mast rings, we were totally excited,” Burtt recalls. “We knew it had to be from a ship close to the 1800s.”
The experience was “heart-stopping,” he says. “Realizing the fact that it’s been there 200 +years and you’re the one to be there after all that time was just overwhelming.”
They documented a slew of objects including a cannon; a 1733 coin; anchor and chain; pieces of hull and decking; a chest believed to hold copies of the Constitution of Upper Canada; and acorn-shaped brass buttons.
Because of their age and military significance, the artifacts all point to the Speedy, the only known cannon-carrying warship lost in those parts, says Burtt, who has made more than 80 dives to the site and, under international law, shares ownership of the wreckage with the British government.
“There is absolutely no question in my mind” that it’s the Speedy but he can’t prove it until the muck is scraped off the bell to reveal the ship’s name.
“And that’s contrary to good archeological work and what the government wants,” he says, explaining that the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport’s rules dictate that nothing can be recovered until a government-funded, public display space is found.
Burtt, who is licensed by the province to protect the wreckage, says the ministry has told him there’s nowhere to put it in popular Presqu’ile Provincial Park, where Newcastle once stood and which would be the ideal location. A spokeswoman for the ministry says it’s up to Burtt to find a suitable public institution, such as a museum.
The wreck hunter, who has teamed up with two partners to find a home for the Speedy’s remains, points out there are two empty government buildings in Presqu’ile.
“The government hasn’t been very helpful getting this stuff out of the water,” he complains. “It’s not important to them.”
He and partners Norm Forman and Dan Buchanan are now proposing to use “The Gates,” a non-profit, government-funded art gallery near the park entrance.
“It’s a one-of-a-kind thing that everyone should be able to see,” Forman, who owns the gallery, says of the wreck.
Buchanan, a local historian, calls it “a wonderful opportunity to tell a lot of history from a time period that we know very little about.”
But for now, what’s left of HMS Speedy must remain in her underwater graveyard.
Courtesy The Star