During the War of 1812, the naval battles of Lake Ontario were... well... almost non-existent.
Both sides new the valuable importance of maintaining superiority of the lake as a vital supply route for troops in the Niagara region and therefore, the delicate balance of making sure that the 'enemy' was never ahead of you in arms and armament was crucial. Therefore, in York (Toronto) and Kingston as well as Sackets Harbor in New York, the great shipbuilding war commenced... Commodore Isaac Chauncey on one said and Commodore Sir James Yeo on the other... Both men building "one more bigger and better ship" to make sure THEIR'S was the dominant force on the lakes but never risking their existing ships in actual battle. If this sounds VAGUELY like the "Cold War" between the West and the USSR and the theory of "mutually assured destruction", it is... in a comic opera kind of way.
Before the end of the war, the British, under Yeo, launched the ultimate... The St. Lawrence with it's three decks and 104 guns was actually the largest ship of it's kind in fresh water AND larger than Nelson's Victory. The St. Lawrence was a first-class ship of the line BUT this is not our ghost ship so I digress...
The fleets DID occasionally engage each other and indeed, they ventured into each others waters.
On several occasions, the chance to have an all-out battle came AWFULLY close with the fleets ranging into view of each other but a full battle never really erupted.
One time, in August 8th, 1813, both fleets stared each other down again just off Niagara in a dead wind... Both fleets motionless in the calm when two American merchantmen converts, the Hamilton and Scourge, staying with the fleet just far enough out of range to avoid the British canons and not close enough to bring their own to bear, became victims of a freak squall that literally came and sent the two ships to a sudden watery grave and with them, an estimated fifty-three sailors.
According to the book, Haunted Lakes by Frederick Stonehouse, one of the survivors of the Scourge remembered...
"I awoke... in consequence of large drops of rain falling on my face... it was so dark I could not see the length of the deck, I... heard a strange rushing noise to windward as I went towards the forward hatch... a flash of lightning almost blinded me. The thunder came at the next instant and with it rushing winds that fairly covered the clap."
"The water was up to my chest and I knew the schooner must soon go over. All this occupied less than a minute... The schooner was filled with the shrieks and cries of the men to leeward, who were lying jammed under the guns, shot boxes, shot and other heavy things that had gone down as the vessel fell over... It rained as if the flood-gates of heaven were opened and it lightninged awfully."
The wrecks rested undisturbed and almost forgotten until they were found by a dive team in 1975 almost 300 feet below the surface. The ice cold fresh water had done wonders in the preservation of the ships.
(For an interesting view of the vessels and more information, click here to see the official Hamilton and Scourge Project Site.)
Old tales die hard and it was a whispered thing that on foggy and dark nights, the two lost schooners were seen again with their square rigged sails fully up and their gun ports open. The mariners who saw the ship say that men were seen on deck, not moving and as it happened all those years ago, the boats shudder and then disappear below the waves without warning.
To most of the sailors of the Great Lakes, spotting the Hamilton and/or the Scourge was always a bad omen. One version, again according to Haunted Lakes by Frederick Stonehouse, relates the belief that if one of the boats crossed your wake, one of your crew would die. In 1942, the steamer Cayuga spotted the ghost ships as they crossed her wake and the steward, an old salt, told them of the legend. He was dead the next day.
Today, the two schooners and the men that perished aboard them are commemorated in the Hamilton - Scourge Memorial in Hamilton (which is why this entry is in both the "Transport" section and the "Hamilton" section) where the Hamilton-Scourge Foundation hopes one day to raise the vessels for public display. For the meantime, a memorial garden with a tombstone for each sailor who lost his life has been erected with a plaque and a full-sized replica of the foremast of the Scourge are there as a reminder of the ships and men located in Confederation Park.
Do the Hamilton and Scourge still ply the waters of Lake Ontario? They haven't been reported in some time but who knows... One things certain... There's no doubt that if they do still sail the lake, they are not the only two spectral ships in the ghostly fleet of Lake Ontario!