Adam Mac ~ A Rushed Conclusion

The blizzard blowing from the northeast across Lake Ontario did not augur a safe or comfortable journey from Upper Canada’s capital, York (now Toronto), to the Presqu’ile peninsula, site of the new district town to the east. The captain, Lieutenant Thomas Paxton, a British naval officer, expressed strong reservations, but the dignitaries of the fledgling colony of Upper Canada (now Ontario) were insistent, and the captain was threatened with a court martial. The prisoner had to be transported immediately to the new courthouse/jail in Presqu’ile in order to meet the demands of justice in the case of one Ogetonicut of the Ojibwe people, the accused murderer of a white man, a Hudson’s Bay trader.

The year was 1804 and it was a cold October day. Aboard the Speedy—one of the hastily-constructed 60-foot, two-masted schooners armed with 4 cannon that were built to counter the threat posed by the newly independent United States of America—were some of Upper Canada’s political elites: the High Constable, the Solicitor-General, a judge from the Court of King’s Bench,  a Lieutenant in the York Militia, a justice of the peace, and a defence attorney and member of the House of Assembly. The presence of so many important figures from the young colony reflected a grim reality, viz. that the case of the Ojibwe man was all but decided. His trial was to be a singular moment in the demonstration of British dominion over the new district of Newcastle (now eastern Ontario). Six handwritten copies of the colony’s new constitution were on board to formally legitimate jurisdiction.

On that evening, the Speedy disappeared, and to this day the wreck of the Speedy has not been discovered. Only a chicken coop and a compass box were ever washed ashore. Though claims to the contrary have been made, no definitive record of the shipwreck has been accepted. The explanations of the shipwreck are varied and conjectural.

Among the attempts to explain the disappearance and probable sinking of the Speedy, the leading contender appears to be that the bonfires lit at the tip of the Presqu’ile peninsula failed to penetrate the heavy snowfall and guide the ship to the narrow channel while  gale force winds carried the ship away from the point and further out into the lake. There it likely struck an underwater rock—the Devil’s Horseblock, a granite pinnacle rising up from the lake floor to within inches of the surface—that had been spotted in 1803 but never charted. When the ship hit the rock, its hull would have been breached dooming the vessel, its crew, and its contingent of prominent personages. The strike powered by the winds and waves of the wintry storm would likely have been forceful enough to dislodge the top of the granite rock, and its ensuing collapse and sinking would conceivably have triggered a sufficiently strong whirlpool that would have easily sucked the crippled ship under. Subsequent attempts to locate the granite pinnacle or its remains have failed, which lends some support to this account.

Another account has it that the gales spun the ship around and sent it careening deeper into the centre of the lake somewhere between Presqu’ile Point and the southern shore in upper New York state. Magnetic anomalies in the area—sometimes referred to as the Sophiasburgh Triangle—may have contributed to the ship’s loss of direction and eventual sinking. Based on this premise, a much larger part of eastern Lake Ontario would have had to be searched to find the underwater wreck, so it should not be surprising that the more precisely targeted searches conducted to date have failed. 

Perhaps the most entertaining theory was proposed in the 2014 thesis of a Kingston ESL instructor and Cultural Studies’ student of First Nations’ mythology at Queen’s University, entitled ‘Mythological Legends of the Great Lakes.’ According to Trisha Palmer, shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, particularly at the eastern end of Lake Ontario near the St. Lawrence River—the so-called Marysburgh Vortex—are physical manifestations of disturbances in the spiritual realm characterized by fantastic creatures with mystical powers. One of the Ojibwe’s lake monsters is Mishipeshu, a dragon whose head resembles a large cat with horns. Mishipeshu is said to be responsible for the powerful storm waves and whirlpools that have seized ships and plunged them into the deep, dark, cold waters of Lake Superior.  According to the Seneca, an Iroquois Nation, Gaasyendietha, the meteor dragon, hunts the waters of Lake Ontario, and is, for Ms. Palmer, as good a proximate cause of the Speedy’s demise as any that has been proposed in the past two centuries.  Some hitherto undiscovered, and still unauthenticated, tape recordings of Seneca oral history mention a legendary underwater monster in the eastern waters of Lake Ontario near Prince Edward County, an island severed by the Murray Canal in the 1880s to provide a safer and more direct route alternative to the island’s rocky southern coastline. The lighthouse on the top of the Presqu’ile peninsula, built in 1840, lights the way to the western end of the canal and provides the very beacon that was missing on that  perilous evening on the 2nd Monday of October in 1804 when all souls aboard the Speedy were lost.

All the above and more, including a two-hour documentary on the Graveyard of the Great Lakes can be found at the United Empire Loyalists’ Museum in Picton on Trafalgar Road between Ye Old Sailor’s Arm and Treadwell’s Fish and Chips. In addition, the Presqu’ile and Quinte Bay Area Chambers of Commerce, Triple-A members of the BBB, recommend Captain Samuel’s three-hour tour from the east end of the Murray Canal through the Bay of Quinte around the island of Prince Edward County and back through the canal by way of Presqu’ile Bay. More shipwreck mysteries are related by the captain, an ancient but gregarious nautical folklorist, as the tour boat skirts the ghostly northern coast of Lake Ontario.

{Anecdotal records—not referenced in Ms. Palmer’s thesis—indicate that upon learning that one of her students was of Ojibwe heritage, she asked what name his people would give to the spirit that devoured the Speedy on that fateful night in October of 1804, to which he reportedly replied, “Hubris.”}

 

Adam Mac is the ‘brain in the vat’ guy who worries about philosophers who get really excited about mind games with absurd thought experiments, but his real fear is that smooth lobes will be our future. He lives in a windowless, mirrorless library carrel. Some of his stories appear in DM, An Anthology of Hardly 20/20 Flash! Fiction and Missing Stories: An Anthology of Hardly 20/20 Flash! Fiction.

 

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