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Lives lost, heritage found and investigated

Ontario marine heritage is being uncovered by local divers.

The province of Ontario has a rich marine heritage that, from time to time, is revealed through archaeological investigations conducted by individuals and groups of volunteers throughout the province.

These investigations, licensed through the Ministry of Citizenship and Multiculturalism, have grown in number since the Ontario Heritage Act was enacted back in the mid 1970’s. At that time the Ontario Marine Heritage Committee (OMHC) was formed and they undertook the  first licensed marine archaeological  project under the new legislation. The license, given to Patrick Folkes, was taken out after a new wreck, formally identified years later, as the Marquette, was located off Hope Island in Georgian Bay.

As the OMHC approaches its 50-year anniversary in 2025, its members have been involved in dozens of similar projects over the last five decades. Underwater research has been conducted here in town previously off Navy Hall where the remains of the King’s Wharf were located. A cross-section of what is believed to have been a batteaux or similar vessel was also studied in the river.

This year, along with local resident, I will be conducting a side scan survey in the area between Fort Mississauga and Four Mile Point. The licensed project was prompted by findings along that shoreline by local historian Chris Allen, who had sent photographs of a small section of wreckage that had washed ashore years earlier. These photos were reminiscent of another taken showing  former Parks Canada Superintendent Walter Halderson with a section of wreckage that had washed up on shore, and later disappeared beneath the waters.

The project this year will try to determine whether any significant marine-related sites are to be found along that section of the Lake Ontario shoreline of Niagara-on-the-Lake.

An OMHC project was undertaken in the vicinity of Purgatory Cove in Lake Huron in 2022 and 2023. A cottager had contacted Patrick Folkes of Lion’s Head  regarding  a wreck site known locally among the cottage community. However they didn’t know the history of the wreck that seemed well broken up in shallow water, with sections lying nestled between the limestone reefs off the cove.

So, after a marine archaeological license was secured, members of the OMHC under the direction of Scarlett Janusas, a Marine Archaeologist and OMHC member ventured out in a Zodiac to explore that area and try to locate the wreckage. In the first year, two sections were located- a long section of hull and the centreboard and its housing in two different areas among the reefs. These were measured and photographed for the record. Last year, the team ,with the assistance of a local cottager, located a primary section of the wreck and also documented this section.

Research by Folkes revealed the wreckage in that locale is most likely that of the Etta. It’s an interesting story reminiscent of many of the stories related to the loss of vessels in the Great Lakes. The Etta was built as a scow schooner in the Goodrich area. By 1883, when it was lost, it was being used as a barge.

The Etta had left Algoma Mills under tow by the steamer Eclipse on Nov. 15, 1883, destined for the Port of Sarnia. The two vessels went into Rattlesnake Harbour on Manitoulin Island later that week, leaving on Nov. 21, hoping to get to Southhampton. The only survivor, John Drew, had been left alone on the towed vessel when Captain Bush of the barge climbed aboard. As the vessels moved down the coast of the peninsula they ran into a gale. The tow was lost and Drew found himself alone adrift on the barge. During the period he was adrift he could hear the steamer’s horn blowing but could not see it. Fortunately for him, however, the Etta drifted ashore and he was able to step ashore near Pikes Bay. He proceeded to walk to Wiarton, a distance of 16 miles, to report the incident. Seven men on the Steamer Eclipse were lost, with three bodies recovered, one of them being Capt Bush of the Etta, another the engineer of the Eclipse, J. Moore.

This coming season it is hoped that further documentation of the wreckage can be completed using 3D photogrammetry of the Etta site. This will help to add to the number of wrecks in the Great Lakes that have similarly been documented.

OMHC members will continue to be involved in similar projects,  such as the one being conducted locally here in Niagara-on-the-Lake.