A story that will shiver your timbers

Come all ye lads and lasses, lend an ear to the fateful story of the U.S. Brig Niagara docked at Pier 8 this weekend.

Aye, she may be a tall ship, but this yarn ’tis not a tall tale.

The Niagara is one of six vessels that sailed into the harbour Friday in a barrage welcoming cannon fire as part of Hamilton’s Tall Ships commemoration of the bicentennial of the War of 1812.

With a length of 198 feet, a mainmast of 118 feet, and sails covering 11,600 square feet, the Niagara strikes a mighty profile against the sky and is one of the larger ships in the collection. But to truly know her you need to look over her pedigree and cast an eye at her timbers.

Unlike the other ships in the flotilla that have been built in more recent times, the Niagara has known the fury of battle. It is one of only two remaining vessels that served in the War of 1812 (the other being the U.S.S. Constitution). However, only a very small part of the Niagara is from the original warship used by Commander Oliver Hazard Perry to win the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813. Flash forward 180 years and it was a native Hamiltonian, Melbourne Smith, who is responsible for the brig sailing today.

Aye, but we get ahead of ourselves. Pour another shot of rum, and we’ll get to that a little later. For now, imagine a world of cannons and muskets two centuries ago in the War of 1812 and how the Americans were desperate to take back control of the upper Great Lakes from the Brits.

The Niagara was one of six warships constructed by the Yankees during the war and they built it in one heck of a hurry. It took only 42 days from when they laid her keel down. The ship became Perry’s relief flagship in his nine-ship squadron that saw the commander capture an entire squadron of six British warships on Sept. 10, 1813.

After the cannon smoke cleared from the battle, Perry sent his tub thumping message to his superiors that “we have met the enemy and they are ours.”

But alas, after the war the Niagara was left to indignity. They had no use for her above the wave, so they sunk her down below. The Niagara was scuttled in the aptly named Misery Bay on Presque Isle, Pa., in 1820.

But then in 1913, the community of Erie, saw some value in her heritage. They raised the Niagara using an ingenious winter plan that involved pulling it up through a hole in the ice and then sliding it over to the shore. Luckily, the keel was still sound and the ship went through a massive rebuild as part of Centennial commemorations of the Battle of Erie.

There was a further rebuild in 1933.

But the ship spent most of its time as a landlocked museum in Erie, sitting on a downtown street rotting away. Her deck leaked so badly that they had to remove planks from the bottom so the rain could run through to the street.

Then in the late 1980s, some local people in Erie decided to rebuild the ship once again, this time to actually sail it.

They brought in Smith to do the job, whose first bit of advice was to forget about a rebuild and settle for a $3 million replica.

“It was just too far gone,” Smith said. But for the sake of his preserving some history he used about 20 pieces from the old ship in the new one “not for anything structural.” In the end the new ship is made up of about 1 per cent of the old ship.

If you take a tour this weekend at Pier 8, the guides will show you the old pieces.

Smith, who is 84 now and living in Florida, grew up in Hamilton before leaving the city in the early 1950s and establishing himself as one of the world’s finest historical ship builders.

And from that vantage point of loving to replicate the old ships, he feels the City of Hamilton should commission a replica of the Hamilton, the city-owned American warship at the bottom Lake Ontario that sits next to the Scourge.

It’s an idea he’s brought up with city officials many times before — each time with the idea being rejected. He figures the job could be done for $1.5 million and believes it would be a great sailing symbol for the city.

 

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