H.M.S. Speedy was one of two twin-masted schooners constructed at the naval shipyard at Kingston in March of 1798. The second schooner was called H.M.S. Swift. Both ships were constructed of green pine timber due to the rush to get them into service. Normally, they cured the timber for several months before using it to build a ship. Certainly, this caused lots of problems with these ships, giving them an expect life span of only six years. So, H.M.S. Speedy was in the last year of its serviceable life in 1804. It was not in good shape.
The two schooners were ordered specifically by Peter Russell, the acting Administrator of Upper Canada, with final approval by the Governor in Quebec. The need for these schooners was very targeted to ferrying government personnel and goods across Lake Ontario. The Jay Treaty had resulted in a mutual de-militarization of the lakes and military ships had been put up on blocks at Niagara to comply with the terms. The need for transportation across the lake for non-military activity only grew in the following years and Mr. Russell was being bombarded by demands for ships he did not have. Tons of goods had to be shipped to Mr. Brant and his folks at the west end of the lake and surveyors and members of the legislature had to get around between York, Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake, the old capital) and Kingston. These ships were military gunboats but were actually used as government taxis.
The threat from American invasion was always kept on the minds of people due to bombastic words from US politicians and some in Upper Canada who looked for conflict. In fact, the later years of the 1790s and the first years of the 1800s were fairly quiet on this front, although it was simmering on a larger front that would result in the War of 1812-1814.
The schooner left York on 7 October 1804 at the insistence of autocratic Lieutenant-Governor Peter Hunter, despite the reluctance of the ship’s captain, Lieutenant Thomas Paxton. Paxton, an experienced British Naval officer, was concerned about an incoming storm and the condition of the ship.
Although only six years old, Speedy suffered extensive weakening of the hull from dry rot due to the timber used in her rushed construction. Two of Speedy’s crew were required to constantly operate manual bilge pumps in order to keep her afloat for the journey. Under threat of court martial, Paxton departed. Almost immediately upon her launch, she ran aground in the harbour due to the heavy load she was carrying, resulting in a six hour delay.
After freeing herself, she sailed due east – this on the evening of October 7 – Speedy stopped briefly at Port Oshawa to pick up the Farewell brothers who were business partners of the murder victim and key witnesses for the prosecution, and a handful of natives who were also to provide testimony. Interestingly the Farewell brothers refused to board the ship, expressing concern that it was already overloaded, crowded, and unsafe. They elected to accompany Speedy in a canoe.
Speedy and the canoe were separated as the storm deteriorated into blizzard conditions during the afternoon and evening of 8 October. The wind had turned and was blowing out of the north-east. By the morning of 9 October, the brothers managed to reach Newcastle’s harbour, but Speedy did not. Soon the schooner was sighted passing Presqu’ile Point at dusk on the 8th. The crew fired one of her cannons to signal her situation and position. In response; shoreline bonfires were lit ostensibly to guide her to safety.
Unfortunately, the schooner vanished on approach to the mouth of the bay. All that was found of the ship, her passengers, cargo, and six-man crew were a chicken coop and compass box. These washed up on the beach opposite the bay.
This immediate and unusual sinking inspired a great deal of speculation about her fate, up to and including fringe theories about the disappearance. Theories ranged from sabotage by parties wishing to prevent the establishment of new fledgling provincial capital of Newcastle, to those promoting a supernatural hypothesis – one of alien abduction ultimately – the ship having effectively been scooped off the face of the earth by parties unknown.
Evidence suggests that Speedy, unaware that she was in the area now known as the Sophiasburgh Triangle, where poorly quantified magnetic anomalies purportedly exist and prevent proper compass operation, and unable to sail directly into the north-easterly wind because she was a square-rigger, tacked across the mouth of Presqu’ile Bay to avoid Bald Head Island and angle her way into port. Unable to navigate using celestial markers or spot the signal fires due to the storm-induced white outs, the captain was completely reliant on the ship’s compass to navigate and struck the mysterious Devil’s Horseblock (or Hitching Post), a stone column (pinnacle) that extended up from depths unknown to within a mere 20 cm of the surface.
The area was dragged with hooks in a government-sponsored effort to establish what had actually transpired. It was established that the mysterious monolithic Horseblock shoal had also vanished. Some suggested the 200-ton Speedy was capable of up-ending – of toppling over this unusual formation.
Speedy became the latest of nearly 100 ships The Sophiasburgh Triangle had claimed since the beginning of the 18th century, adding to fears that the area was too dangerous for a major port.
In part due to this disaster, Presqu’ile was deemed an inappropriate and “inconvenient” location for a district town. The incident was called “a disaster felt by the Bench, the Bar, Society, the Legislature and the Country.” Newcastle was abandoned and the district centre was moved to Amherst (now known as Cobourg, Ontario) in 1805.
In addition to the accused, many of the souls lost with disappearance of the Speedy were prominent United Empire Loyalists, government officials and important members of the small colony.
The disaster likely changed the course of Canadian history, as it was believed that the new capital of the colony would be moved to Newcastle once the town was established. Those plans were abandoned due to the sudden loss of so many significant members of Upper Canada society.
Dan Buchanan – The History Guy