The colossal St. Lawrence was one of the largest warships 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 Nelson’s legendary warship.
Even more remarkable than HMS St. Lawrence’s considerable size is the fact that the massive three-deck warship was completely landlocked. She was built, launched and served her all-too-brief career on a mere fresh water lake nearly a thousand kilometers from the nearest major sea port – a 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 to the east and hemmed in from the other Great Lakes by the mighty falls of the Niagara to the west, the lumbering warship’s sole purpose was to secure the Crown’s naval superiority over 300 kilometres of freshwater. And for the final few weeks of the War of 1812, it did just that.
Battle of the Carpenters
The 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 Napoleonic Wars. In fact, most of the conflict’s land battles were contested within a cannon’s shot of the lakes’ shorelines. And from the very outset of the small but bloody contest, military planners on both sides knew only too well that whichever side controlled the lakes would control the war. Their waters had long been vital arteries enabling both commercial and military access to the interior of the North American continent.
Both powers 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 competing shipbuilding 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 these 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 artillerymen hastily trained as sailors.
War on the Lakes: The Tempest in a Tea Cup
Soon, the opposing forces on the lakes 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. Each commander was afraid that a decisive confrontation might result in a defeat that would hand total control of the lakes (and the very outcome of the war itself) 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 jeopardy.
Introducing the St. Lawrence
With American control of Lake Erie secure, the British set about to cement their hold on Lake Ontario the following spring.
Yeo was ordered by the admiralty to oversee the construction a new moderately-sized warship to shore up the British 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 tangling with the goliath and its crew of 800.
Ironically, within weeks of the ship’s maiden voyage, hostilities were suspended; the British warship had yet to taste battle.
But had the war continued into 1815, it’s likely that the St. Lawrence would have certainly 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 that would outgun even 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 decommissioned and eventually sold in 1832 for a paltry £25. It later became the property of a local brewery where it served as a pier.
After being picked apart for its 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.