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Sinking of the USS Hamilton and Scourge

For the week of Monday August 6, 2012

On August 8, 1813, a sudden squall caused the American schooners USS Hamilton and Scourge to capsize and sink in Lake Ontario at two in the morning. More than three quarters of the crew aboard the ships perished. The high death toll made the sinking of the vessels the largest single loss of life on the Great Lakes during the War of 1812.

Sail plans and ship profiles of USS Hamilton and Scourge
© Created by Ian Morgan, 1982. Courtesy of the City of Hamilton
Before the war, the Hamilton and the Scourge were merchant ships, which were non-military vessels typically used to transport goods and passengers. The Scourge was originally an Upper Canadian merchant vessel named the Lord Nelson that was seized by the Americans in June 1812. When war broke out, both vessels (like many other schooners) were pressed into naval service. Thirty years later, sailor Ned Myers, one of a handful of survivors told his story of the sinking. He had watched as the schooners were weighted down with heavy cannons prior to their departure, feeling wary of the extra weight added to the vessels. He describes the initial calmness of the night, shocked at the suddenness of the midnight squall. He remembered: “The flashes of lightning were incessant, and nearly blinded me. Our decks seemed on fire, and yet I could see nothing. I heard no hail, no order, no call; but 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.” Myers managed to survive the capsizing by jumping overboard and finding a small lifeboat. He then saved a handful of survivors from the quickly disappearing wreckage.

A stamp featuring the the wreckage of the USS Hamilton and Scourge
© Canada Post Corporation, 1987/ Reprinted with permission
The Hamilton and Scourge are remarkably preserved wrecks and have been the subject of several underwater archaeological explorations. They also contain a number of treasured naval artifacts. The wrecks were discovered in their current location 90 metres below the surface of Lake Ontario in 1973. They were later purchased from the United States government by the City of Hamilton. The Hamilton and Scourge was designated a National Historic Site in 1976.

This year is the beginning of the bicenteniary of the War of 1812. For information on seafaring and the War of 1812 please read HMS Shannon defeats and captures USS Chesapeake. For more stories about the war read This Means War!, The Invasion of Canada and Action at the Canard River! in the This Week in History archives. Commemorative events will take place in Hamilton, near the wreckage of the Hamilton and Scourge. For more information on the War of 1812, visit Commemorating the War of 1812 on the Parks Canada website.

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