“The lumbering warship’s sole purpose was to assert the Crown’s naval supremacy on a 300 kilometre long strip of freshwater.”
THE COLOSSAL St. Lawrence was one of the largest fighting vessels of the Napoleonic era.
Laid down in April of 1814, this Royal Navy first-rate, ship-of-the-line was five feet longer than HMS Victory and two feet wider in the beam. It also packed 112 cannons – eight more than Horatio Nelson’s legendary flagship.
Even more remarkable than HMS St. Lawrence’s considerable size is the fact that the massive ship was completely landlocked. She was built, launched and served her surprisingly brief career on a fresh water lake nearly a thousand kilometres from the nearest major sea port – the proverbial big fish in a small pond.
Finished in just 10 months by an army of shipbuilders (Victory’s construction took a full six years), the St. Lawrence was launched from a British shipyard at Kingston, Upper Canada on the northern shore of Lake Ontario in the fall of 1814. Blocked from reaching the Atlantic by the treacherous rapids of the St. Lawrence River and hemmed in by the mighty falls of the Niagara, the lumbering warship’s sole purpose was to assert the Crown’s naval supremacy on a 300 kilometre long strip of freshwater in the face of American aggression. And for the final few weeks of the War of 1812, she did just that.
“Battle of the Carpenters”
of course, the wider Great Lakes served as the backdrop for much of the War of 1812, that curious two-and-a-half year Anglo-American outgrowth of the fight against Napoleon. In fact, most of the conflict’s land battles were waged within a cannon’s shot of its shorelines. And from the very outset of the small but bloody contest, military planners in both Britain’s Canadian colonies and the U.S. knew only too well that whichever power controlled the inland waterways controlled the war. After all, those same lakes had long been vital arteries enabling both commercial and military access to the interior of the North America.
As such, the two competing nations embarked on a naval arms race, with each struggling to procure, commandeer or build from scratch enough ships to tip the balance of power on the lakes (namely Lake Erie and Lake Ontario) in their favour. And these building campaigns were no small task either, especially on an isolated frontier. Materials and labourers were perennially in short supply. And for the British commodore James Yeo and his American counterparts Isaac Chauncey and Oliver Hazard Perry, finding seasoned sailors to crew the newly commissioned vessels was another immense challenge. The British Provincial Marine, a sort of colonial Royal Navy ‘Lite’, would eventually be supplemented by blue water sailors brought in from the Atlantic. On the American side, professional naval officers would command regular seamen and a hodgepodge of ground troops and landsmen hastily trained to be tars.
War on the Lakes: A Tempest in a Tea Cup
Soon, the opposing forces reached something approaching parity, each maintaining between one and two-dozen lightly armed sloops, schooners and brigs.
For two years, these miniature navies raided each other’s ports, landed troops on hostile shores, and bombarded rival positions. Yet rarely did the enemy fleets clash. Commanders on both sides feared that losing a decisive confrontation would hand total control of the lakes (and the very outcome of the war) over to the opposition.
The largest naval encounter on the Great Lakes took place on Erie a few miles off Put-In-Bay, Ohio on Sept. 10, 1813. The afternoon battle saw a force of nine American vessels batter a fleet of six British ships into submission. While the day-long contest cost fewer than 100 lives, it did guarantee U.S. supremacy on Lake Erie and threw the whole British war effort into disarray.
Introducing the St. Lawrence
In the aftermath of the decisive clash, the British focused their efforts on holding nearby Lake Ontario.
Yeo was ordered by the admiralty to oversee the construction a new moderately-sized warship to shore up the British presence on the lake. He exceeded those orders and had the Kingston shipyard construct a bona-fide ship of the line instead.
By the fall of that year, the St. Lawrence was ready for action and the balance of power had decisively shifted in Britain’s favour. No U.S. vessels dared to challenge the Royal Navy on Lake Ontario from that point on. In fact, few enemy vessels even ventured from port for fear of an encounter with the new goliath and its crew of 800.
Ironically, within weeks of the ship’s maiden voyage, hostilities were suspended as peace negotiations commenced; the British warship, its paint barely dry, was to be laid up.
But had the war continued into 1815, it’s likely that the St. Lawrence would have done battle with much larger foes than the small brigs and sloops that sailed from the American ports on Lake Ontario.
By the end of 1814, the American shipyard at Sackets Harbor, New York was busy constructing a vessel to outgun the St. Lawrence. While the USS New Orleans was designed to carry 130 guns, its construction was halted in early 1815 after the peace. Had it been completed, it would have been joined by another American behemoth, the USS Chippewa, also under construction in the very same port.
Following the Treaty of Ghent, the terms of the subsequent Rush Bagot Agreement effectively demilitarized the Great Lakes. The St. Lawrence was promptly decommissioned and eventually sold in 1832 for a paltry £25. It later became the property of a local brewery where it was run aground to served as an improvised pier.
Later, after being picked apart for planks, the St. Lawrence was towed out into Lake Ontario and scuttled. She is now a popular wreck for scuba divers.
Models of HMS St. Lawrence are on display at opposite ends of Lake Ontario. One is at the Hamilton Military Museum in Hamilton, Ontario and at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario.