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Underwater Archaeology

Prior to the completion of the St. Lawrence seaway in 1958, Kingston played an important role in Great Lakes shipping and maritime commerce; Kingston's situation at the confluence of Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence river, and the Great Cataraqui River (after 1832 the southernmost stretch of the Rideau Canal) made it a natural strategic and commercial centre. Today, Great Lakes ship traffic passes south of Wolfe Island, missing Kingston, and little marine traffic other than yachts and pleasure craft enter the harbour. The prolific maritime activity that took place within the harbour during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, provides for an abundance of archaeological material off the shores of Kingston: this material exists chiefly in the form of shipwrecks, abandoned ships, piers, and wharves.

About Underwater Archaeology

Underwater archaeology is similar in philosophy and methodology to archaeology on land, though the equipment employed may differ slightly. A popular conception of Underwater archaeology tends to associate it with the investigation of sunken ships and wharves; another extremely important aspect of underwater archaeology in North America, however, is the investigation of native habitations that were once situated on the banks of a river or lake, but that have since become submerged by the progress of water.

A Brief History of Shipping and Wrecks Around Kingston

Following the capture of Fort Frontenac by the British from the French in 1758, resettlement of the Kingston area did not begin in earnest until the United Empire Loyalists began to arrive from the United States in the 1780s. The arrival of the Loyalists signalled the beginning of Kingston's growth in commercial and strategic importance; Kingston became the base of the Provincial Marine, and Point Frederick the site of a naval dockyard in 1789.

The naval presence at Kingston grew substantially during the War of 1812-1814, and in 1813 the Royal Navy took over the base at Point Frederick from the Provincial Marine (at which point it became known as the Royal Naval Dockyard) and initiated a frenetic program of shipbuilding. A strong naval force on Lake Ontario was essential, as both the Americans and British realized that domination of this region meant control of the Upper Lakes.Between 1812-1814 a shipbuilding race took place between the British shipyard at Kingston and the American yard at Sackets Harbor, New York. Increasingly larger ships were built at both locations in order to gain naval control of Lake Ontario. Limited naval engagements that took place between 1812-1814. On 24 December 1814, the two nations signed the Treaty of Ghent, ending the war.

After peace was declared in 1815, Kingston remained the chief British naval base on the Great Lakes. The Rush-Bagot Agreement of 1817 severely limited armed armed vessels and further stated that all other vessels were to be unrigged and no new vessels constructed. The vessels at Kingston were laid up in ordinary or anchored in Navy Bay, but soon showed signs of dry rot. A British decision to terminate the presence of the Royal Navy on the Great Lakes in 1832 coincided with the opening of the Rideau Canal, which greatly strengthened Canada’s defensive position by providing a secure water transportation and communication route from Quebec to Kingston via Bytown (present day Ottawa). On 15 March 1832, instructions were issued to sell all vessels and naval stores on the Lakes. The largest warship afloat, St. Lawrence, was auctioned off for £25 and then towed across to Kingston in 1832 to serve as a storehouse for a large brewery owned by Robert Drummond and James Morton, where the hull gradually disintegrated and disappeared under shallow water. The remains of at least three warships built at Point Frederick during 1813 and 1814 survive at Kingston, including the St. Lawrence, the Prince Regent, and Princess Charlotte.

The War of 1812 also led to the construction of Fort Henry on Point Henry, and the construction of an Ordnance Wharf on the point is associated with this period; the wharf likely served during the maintenance and operation of the fort. A large wharf of a different variety exists a stone's throw from the remains of the St. Lawrence; built as early as the 1830s, it also served Drummond and Morton's brewery. The wharf was used for bringing in raw materials for the business, and for shipping out the finished product. This sort of industrial and commercial activity was characteristic of the bustling port of Kingston in the mid-nineteenth century, which, between 1841 and 1843, served as the capital of the Province of Canada.

Throughout much of the nineteenth century, Garden Island, five kilometres south of Kingston, was home to one of Kingston's most important and diversified businesses: the Calvin & Co timber forwarding, shipbuilding, and towing/salvage enterprise existed between 1830 and 1914. The backbone of the company's trade was timber forwarding; "sticks" of timber from around the Great Lakes were brought to the Back Bay of Garden Island for assembly into large rafts, which were then towed down the St. Lawrence River to Quebec. Many of the company's schooners (and, later, steamers) which brought this timber to Garden Island or towed the rafts were built on Garden Island, and, when they became unfit for service afloat, as many as twenty-three vessels were put to work as piers and breakwaters in a marine graveyard in the Back Bay of Garden Island.

Deep-water marine graveyards west of Kingston, rather than the shallow waters of Back Bay, are home to two former Calvin & Co steamers. The side-wheel steamer Cornwall served the company as a salvage tug for a short period, was sold, and was ultimately scuttled south of Amherst Island circa 1931. The other vessel, the screw-propelled tug William Johnston, met a similar fate southwest of Simcoe Island in the 1930s. At least ten vessels lie in each of these two graveyards (south of Amherst Island and southwest of Simcoe Island), many of which were removed from shallow-water graveyards in Kingston and Portsmouth harbours in 1925 and 1937, respectively.

Each of the aforementioned sites was positioned deliberately, and, strictly speaking, they are not "shipwrecks;" the true shipwrecks in the vicinity of Kingston were deposited through disaster. The majority of wrecked ships near Kingston are schooners, the workhorses of lake shipping between the late eighteenth and late nineteenth centuries, and most were engaged in shipping small to medium-sized bulk cargoes (e.g. lumber, agricultural produce, coal) on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River (the large, wooden-hulled screw-steamers that carried the largest bulk cargoes, and the metal-hulled screw-steamers that replaced them in the early twentieth century, were somewhat less prone to disaster). The schooners Annie Falconer, Olive Branch, George A. Marsh and William Jamieson, as well as the schooner-barge Aloha, for example, were coal laden when they were wrecked near Kingston.

The steamship passenger and passage freight on the Great Lakes was inaugurated with the launch of the sidewheel steamship Frontenac in 1816, which was built at Bath, Ontario, just west of Kingston. If the workhorse of bulk shipping through most of the nineteenth century was the schooner, the side-wheel steamer was the workhorse of passenger, package, and mail routes during this period. An excellent example of this type of vessel is the Comet, built at Portsmouth in 1848, and wrecked near Kingston in 1861.

One unique submerged vessel which was neither sail- nor steam-propelled is the Munson, a dredge that sank abreast of Lemoine Point in 1890 while being towed to Belleville. One Calvin & Co. built tug, the Frontenac, was lost while returning from a salvage job on Main Duck Island in 1929. Unlike her sister tug, the William Johnston, she was not stripped of machinery and gear before going down, and thus paints a much richer archaeological picture.

Whatever the nature of the formation of the sites (deliberate or through disaster), they form a representative sample not only of the ships that worked in and around Kingston, but also of the shore-bound facilities required to operate these ships. These sites include some of the best or only surviving examples of certain classes of ships in the Great Lakes.

Diving at Kingston

Sport diving at Kingston began in the 1950s, when two of the most popular dive sites were Navy Bay and Deadman Bay, each of which contained significant numbers of artifacts. Not until the 1960s did wreck diving begin in earnest; at this point began an impressive series of discoveries, beginning with the relocation of the schooner City of Sheboygan in 1963. During the 1960s and 1970s, wreck diving in the Kingston area grew in popularity, and an increasing number of wrecks were "opened-up" for visiting divers who were taken to the sites by charter-boat operators. Several Kingston-area wrecks were publicized in diving magazines, a fact which served simply to increase the underwater traffic. Unfortunately, a great deal of souvenir collection took place during this period, and some sites were completely stripped of portable artifacts which found their way into private and public collections; as well, many sites were damaged by visiting dive boats which anchored into wrecks. Not all sites were stripped clean, however, and by the late 1970s a shift began to occur towards the preservation of sites. In 1980, the deliberate removal of a winch from the schooner-barge Aloha was the catalyst for the formation of Preserve Our Wrecks Kingston by a group of area divers. The founding of P.O.W. coincided with the formation of the province-wide organization Save Ontario Shipwrecks. P.O.W. employs peer pressure, public education, and the installation of moorings on some of the most popular sites (to prevent anchor damage) in its attempt to preserve Kingston-area historic shipwrecks from senseless damage. In 1982, P.O.W. conducted an archaeological survey of the schooner Annie Falconer, and monitoring of this site continues today.

Throughout the 1980s, the efforts of P.O.W. and S.O.S. significantly curtailed historic shipwreck stripping in the Great Lakes, and led to a higher level of awareness among sport divers regarding the importance of site preservation. In the mid 1980s, however, a new problem arose for those interested in the preservation and study of Ontario's marine heritage. The introduction of the zebra mussel (Dreissena polymorpha) and the quagga mussel (Dreissena bugensis) affected marine heritage conservation in two somewhat paradoxical manners: on the one hand, sport divers, charter-boat operators, archaeologists, and preservation groups alike have benefited from a dramatic improvement in underwater visibility as a result of the filtering action of the mussel; on the other hand, acute mussel coverage obscures the surfaces of submerged cultural resources, hindering observation and study. Furthermore, the physical removal of mussels damages the surface to which they were attached. Zebra and quagga mussels were first observed near Kingston in 1993, and P.O.W. presumes that, in the near future, significant, if not complete, mussel coverage of historic shipwrecks in the Kingston area is inevitable. Given that the surfaces of sites may never be visible again in their present condition, P.O.W. initiated a photo project to record the sites before they are obscured.