U.S. researchers hope to piece together story of 19th century ship in Toronto

A team of U.S. nautical archaeologists has come to Toronto to examine the remains of a 19th century cargo ship unearthed during construction of a waterfront condo two years ago.

Ship was like the 'trucks that we have now,' says Texas A&M archeologist

A team of U.S. nautical archaeologists has come to Toronto to examine the remains of a 19th century cargo ship unearthed during the construction of a downtown condo two years ago. (CBC)

A team of U.S. nautical archaeologists has come to Toronto to examine the remains of a 19th century cargo ship unearthed during the construction of a downtown condo two years ago.

Through an archeological investigation, the team from Texas A&M University will attempt to tell the story of the ship and will analyze its planking, nails and modifications. The team will also take a hard look at artifacts found alongside it.

The ship, discovered in the area of Bathurst Street and Fort York Boulevard, is incomplete. Only the keel, the lowermost portions of the stern and bow, and a limited section of the bottom of the hull on the port side are intact.

About 16 metres in length, the Lake Ontario schooner is believed to be one of the oldest vessels found in the city. It could date back to the 1820s. 
Carolyn Kennedy, leader of a team of researchers from Texas A&M University, smiles as she talks about the ship. (CBC)

Carolyn Kennedy, a nautical archeologist from Texas A&M and team leader, said the cargo ship likely would have moved goods across Lake Ontario as the Town of York, as Toronto was then known, grew in size. Kennedy, a graduate of Concordia University, is originally from Montreal.

"It wasn't clear how they had built it or for what purpose and so I wanted to help answer those questions," she said on Tuesday. 

Kennedy said the ship was patched and modified and she has yet to find out why. It has had an "odd" number of modifications, she said. Examining the construction of the ship and its modifications will uncover its mysteries, she said.

"That'll give us insight into how the sailors were living and what crew and cargo they had on board," she said.

"This probably had a somewhat unique life. It tells us about the very beginnings of the city of York, the city of Toronto. These merchant vessels probably would have been the bread and butter of trade at that time. They would have been like the trucks that we have now," she said.
Planking from the ship lies at Fort York in Toronto. (CBC)

"They would have carried all that cargo to the settlers who were coming to the city of York, to the city of Toronto, who would really have needed a lot of supplies because there would have been a lot of wilderness out here. This would have really been how they were getting the supplies in those early days, in the 1820s." 

Kennedy and other researchers hope to solve the mysteries surrounding the long planks that make up what is left of the ship and piece together answers to following questions: 

  • Who built this ship? 
  • Where and when exactly was it built? 
  • What kind of ship was it?
  • What kind of cargo did it carry? 
  • Why were extensive modifications made to it?
  • What do the design changes say about shipbuilding at the time?
  • Did the ship have more than one life? 
  • How exactly did it meet its demise?
  • What were people in the area surviving on, what were their trade routes, and how did the ship fit into that?
  • How did the ship navigate Lake Ontario, an inland freshwater lake that is enormous?
It could have been built by British people in what is now Canada, she said. 
Some of the artifacts found alongside the ship are on display at the Fort York Visitor Centre. (CBC)

The ship has markings from the Royal Navy and contained an American one-cent piece with an illegible date. 

More than 1,000 objects, including an arrow head, a rivet hammer, several chisels, a soup ladle, an early fork, dishes, a clay tobacco pipe, a clasp knife and the remains of a tin cup, were found alongside the ship. Some are on display at the Fort York Visitor Centre.

Richard Gerrard, a historian for the city of Toronto, said the findings from the archeological team could be invaluable because they could shed light on city history. 

"Anything it can tell us is new," he said. "Each piece adds something to the puzzle."

Modifications to the ship are strange, he added.

"It's all really, really weird. And hopefully, we start to pick that apart as they literally start picking the vessel apart." 
The remains of a tin cup were found alongside the ship. It is on display at the Fort York Visitor Centre. (CBC)

Once the team finishes its work, the city is hoping to display the wreck, he said. Where it will exhibited has not been determined yet.

A student in a masters program at Texas A&M, who is part of the team, is hoping to write her thesis on the ship and to reconstruct it as it looked in the 1820s when it was sailing.

The team is in Toronto for two more weeks. The ship was found roughly six metres underground at a CityPlace site.

With files from Nicholas Boisvert