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JW Fishers - News - July 1, 2005


Longtime diver and shipwreck explorer Ed Burtt of Belleville has discovered a wreck near Presqu’ile Bay. Initially unable to identify the wreck, Ed now says “I’m 99.99% sure it’s the Speedy”. The Speedy is not just another old wreck lying on the floor of Lake Ontario. This shipwreck changed the history of Canada.

The 80 foot long warship HMS Speedy was built in Kingston in 1798. She was one of five wooden sailing ships that were quickly constructed by a British government worried about a war with neighboring US colonies, which eventually came in 1812. Prior to the war the ships were used primarily for transporting government officials and supplies among the small settlements surrounded by vast tracks of wilderness. In October of 1804, Speedy was assigned the task of carrying some of the province’s most influential citizens to an important trial in the village of Newcastle on Presqu’ile Point. This event would ultimately have a dramatic impact on the history of Canada.

A year earlier, in 1803, it was reported that a Chippewa Muskrat Indian had been killed by an unknown white man. Governor Hunter promised the indians that the killer would be brought to trial. Almost a year passed without the killer being bought to justice. The brother of the murdered man decided to avenge his death by killing a white fur trader. Immediately soldiers were dispatched to capture and arrest the avenging indian. What followed were lengthy negotiations between government officials and the lawyers over where the trial should take place. The defence successfully argued that the trial be held in the district of Newcastle as the murder had taken place just inside it’s borders; under English law, no one could be tried in one district for a crime committed in another. Although an inconvenience, government officials decided to make the most of the technicality. The area needed a capitol, and if the native man was tried, found guilty, and hanged in Newcastle, the events would serve nicely to establish it as the District Town.

In October of 1804 principals of the trial, which read like a “who’s who” of Upper Canada society, along with the trial judge and the prisoner, boarded the Speedy on a pleasant fall day for what was expected to be an uneventful trip from York to Newcastle. After a brief stop at Port Oshawa to pick up the O’Farrell brothers, chief witnesses in the trial, the little ship headed out for Newcastle. What the passengers didn’t know was that the 6 year old ship was in badly deteriorating condition; the result of her rushed construction using green timber. Her skipper Lt. Paxton was so concerned about the dry rot in the ship’s hull, at first he refused the assignment, and later only undertook the trip under threat of court martial. In fact, two sailors had to run hand pumps constantly to keep the ship from sinking. To make matters worse, variances in the earth’s magnetic field in that part of the lake prevented mariners from obtaining accurate compass readings, a phenomenon which has led to the area today being called “The Sophiasburgh Triangle”. As they approached Presqu’ile Point, now in the dark of night, a northeast snow squall blew in and struck the little ship which was already in great distress. Being a square rigger, she couldn’t sail directly into the wind. Paxton attempted to backtrack, but with the ship taking on water and her sails heavy with the wet snow, he had difficultly steering. The combination of those things probably led him directly into what he was trying to avoid most - “The Devils Horseblock”, a spike of limestone hidden just beneath the waves. All we know for sure is that aside from a chicken coup, no trace of ship, passengers, or crew was ever found.

Since his boyhood growing up on the shores of the big lake, Ed Burtt had been fascinated with shipwrecks and the story of the Speedy. As an adult he learned to dive and became intimately familiar with the tools of the serious wreck hunter purchasing JW Fishers side scan sonar, magnetometer, and underwater camera. Countless hours were spent scouring the lake bottom in search of wrecks. When the side scan produced an image of something interesting, Ed would deploy his magnetometer to see if there was any metal there. Once he confirmed it was a shipwreck, the underwater camera would be deployed to verify how the wreck was positioned and if there were any entanglement hazards for the diver. He took great pains in researching historical documents to find the name of the vessel, and why it sank. Over time Ed honed his skills, and his reputation grew as a successful wreck hunter. He located and dove on many wrecks in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway. Eventually he was invited to Florida and Cuba to participate in several professional search operations. With the help of his side scan, magnetometer, and camera, Ed assisted in finding the remains of several Spanish galleons laden with treasure.

One of the local wrecks Ed found, but was never able to identify, was one off Presqu’ile Point not far from the Devil’s Horseblock. He spent months going through old newspapers and maritime journals in libraries and museums, and doing numerous dives on the site taking photographs and measurements. He began to think that it may be the wreck of Speedy and researched many historical accounts of the incident. The wreckage is strung out over a substantial distance starting with a grove in the shale bottom obviously caused by a large anchor dragging, the size that a vessel like the Speedy would use. In fact, an anchor identified as 18th century design, is part of the wreckage field. A number of artifacts have been found on the site including clay pipes, a pair of glasses, and two very interesting pieces - a set of manacles and a ball and chain. Also discovered near the site using a JW Fishers metal detector is a coin dated to 1733. Two masts are lying on the bottom near a broken hull that measures 60 feet in length. The Speedy had a bowsprit attached to her hull which accounted for 20 feet of her 80 foot length. Ed also found cannon balls of the size required by the four pound cannons typically carried on provincial marine ships. Wrecks of cannon-carrying warships are extremely rare and Speedy is the only one known lost in these waters. One of the most telling finds to date is the ship’s bell, lying on the bottom with only the English letter S clearly visible.

After his exhaustive research, and with all the present evidence, Ed is convinced it’s the wreck of the Speedy. He’s not interested in removing any items from the site until the proper time and is following government regulations for dealing with a historical find of this significance. Diving on the wreck has allowed him to observe firsthand the slow disintegration of what remains of the HMS Speedy, and he is anxious to recover what he refers to as “our heritage”. Ed has now formed a nonprofit organization and is looking for a place to display the artifacts once they are recovered. “I need to find a facility to hold the few “treasures” that remain from the Speedy to tell my fellow Canadians about the important role this brave little ship played in the history of our country. ”And play an important role in the country’s history it did. Only steps from the lighthouse on Presqu’le Point, a plaque commemorating Speedy’s fate concludes, “the loss of so many prominent persons was a severe blow to the small colony.” After the wreck of the Speedy, with no trial occurring, the governor’s plans for Newcastle were never realized. Quarter session meetings were never held at the courthouse, and a government act in 1805 deemed Newcastle “an inconvenient site for a District Town”. Cobourg was eventually chosen in its place, and Cobourg remains the administrative capitol of Northumberland County, a destiny that could have been Brighton’s. As Henry David Thoreau once observed, “There are more consequences to a shipwreck than the underwriters notice.”

E-mail for information on Ed Burtt’s other projects or to receive a copy of JW Fishers newsletter Search Team News with articles on underwater search operations from around the world.


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