Schooners and Shipbuilding


The most common ship seen on Lake Ontario at the beginning of the 19th century was the schooner. Schooners were fore-and-aft rigged, which meant they could "point up higher" or "work windward" to a greater degree than other vessels. These ships are also much more nimble and can move more easily off a lee shore. The Hamilton and Scourge were both fore-and-aft schooner rigs. The Deputy-Surveyor General Collins believed schooners to be much safer than the common flat-bottomed ships.


Throughout the War of 1812, and well before, the main shipbuilding port for the British Navy was at Kingston, while for the Americans it lay across the lake a short distance from Kingston at Sackets Harbor.


Before ships could be built, sufficient supplies and equipment had to be on hand. For the war ships, both the British and Americans had to have a sufficient quantity of shot, powder, guns, grape and cannister.

The construction of any ship necessitated huge quantities of nails, barrels of pitch, oakum, cables of rope, paint, and linseed oil. The wood for ships (oak and pine) was available in the forest, but the trees still had to be reduced to timbers in a saw pit. The joining of the wood required tools such as saws, mallets, caulking irons, augers and planes. Canvas, needles, leather, beeswax and thread were among other supplies needed.


First, a design for the ship itself had to be drawn up.

Next, based on the measurements for the ship's design, the keel pieces and frame timbers were roughed out with timber. Once the keel was assembled, it was placed upon the blocks that would hold the ship in place during its construction.

The "ribs" were added next. The ribs that passed through the central portion of the ship were formed of one continuous piece and are called "square frames". At the extremities, the ribs are put up in halves, and are called "cants". Each rib is made up of two layers of oak timbers, bolted together. Ribs were spaced at 24 inches apart.

With the basic hull frame complete, it was time to "hang plank", the term given for the attaching of timber that would form the outer shell of the hull. Cutting the planks to the right length and width ensuring a snug fit required great skill. While the planks were being cut, the frame was "dubbed". This step involved using an adze to trim the frame minutely and ensure the best fit of plank to frame.

The planks for the lower half of the hull were usually made of softer pine, while the upper strakes ( a strake is a row of plank running from bow to stern), which received more abrasive wear-and-tear, were made of harder oak. Planks that required a lot of twisting for the right fit and shape were placed in a steam kiln to make them more pliable.

Planks were held in place with iron C-clamps until they were permanently fastened to the frame with a treenail or trunnel fastenings (locust pegs about 1 1/4" in diameter).

In a good day, two to two and a half strakes of plank could be attached, which would wind two and a half times around the ship. The inside of the hull had to be planked too!

The planks were then caulked - the seams between the planks were filled with cotton and oakum, and then topped with putty.

The deckwork required the installation of heavy beams of oak that could measure as much as 9 inches square and 25 feet long. Each beam was "crowned", or "peaked", at the centre, so that the deck would allow water to run off the side of the ship.

With the decks completed, the bulwarks and rail stanchions were added, as was the ironwork for the rigging.

Finally, the bowsprit and rudder were installed, and the hull was painted.

The ship itself could be launched from a cradle, upright and straight ahead, or a bilge launching (from the side) could be chosen.

After launching, the masts were floated to the dock where they were hoisted from the water for installation. During rigging, the ship was also ballasted.

Taken from A History of Shipbuilding - How to build a Ship (from Dana Story, "Hail Columbia!", Barne Publishing, Barne, Massachusetts - 1970)

British Shipbuilding on Lake Ontario

The first group of merchant vessels built on Lake Ontario includes the 66-ton York, and two smaller vessels, the Genesee and Polly, built at Niagara in 1794.

Kingston harbour soon moved to the forefront in shipbuilding. Sir Isaac Brock, commander of the forces of Upper Canada, ordered the construction of larger gun ships. In 1805, the Earl of Moira was launched at 169 tons and 14 guns. She was followed by the smaller armed schooner, the Duke of Gloucester, in 1807; and the renowned Royal George, of a whopping 330 tons, and 22 guns joined the fleet in 1809.

By 1810, an observer counted 26 vessels engaged in trade and passenger transport on the lake; all of these merchant ships were less than 90 tons.

The Upper Canada merchant James Crooks, living in Crookston (a mile west of Niagara) launched his merchant schooner, the Lord Nelson [later captured and renamed the Scourge] in 1811. Construction lasted 8 months, with a month's pause between February and March.

Later ships to come out of Kingston included the Wolfe (Commodore Yeo's ship when the Hamilton and Scourge sank), a 23-gun, 416-ton vessel launched in April, 1813. Sir Isaac Brock, under construction at York, was burnt during Chauncey's attack and occupation there in April 1813.

American History of Shipbuilding

American shipbuilding at Oswego and Sackets Harbor sprang from the need to enforce the Embargo Act of 1807 across the American - Upper Canadian border that passed through Lake Ontario.

Lieutenant Woolsey was sent from Washington to Oswego with a gang of shipbuilders for just such a purpose. On March 31, 1803 the Oneida was launched with a party held in honour of the event (to read a humorous description of the ball, click here). The Oneida was 243 tons with 17 guns (Ned Myers believed that the British Royal George was built in response to the Oneida).

Also launched in 1809 was the Diana, a schooner built for merchant Matthew McNair, who also owned another merchant schooner called Peggy.

When Chauncey was sent by the U.S. Navy to join Woolsey, he shifted shipbuilding from Oswego to Sackets Harbor. Here, the Madison was launched in November, 1812 at 593 tons and capable of holding 22 guns, after an incredible construction period of only 9 weeks!

Sackets Harbor built two more ships from 1812-1813: the Lady of the Lake, a small schooner, and the largest ship on Lake Ontario at the time, the General Pike at 900 tons, with 26 guns.

When you read about the other ships in Chauncey and Yeo's fleets, many were simple merchant schooners that were purchased by the Navy and armed. The Lord Nelson (Scourge) and Diana (Hamilton) were two such ships.


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