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Search is on for HMS Speedy — the ship that changed history

A British warship steeped in lore was lost more than 200 years ago. Some would like to find her to prove the pivotal role the ship played in Canada's history.

Oshawa diver may have coordinates of final resting place of famed schooner

"The Last Flight of the Speedy" is an artist's rendition of the night HMS Speedy sank along with many prominent members of Upper Canada Society, an Indigenous man they were going to try for murder and early attempts at a constitution for a new country. (Peter Ridlisbacher)

It was a ship that could have changed the course of Canadian history — had she made it to port safely.

HMS Speedy sank in Lake Ontario near Presqu'ile in 1804 along with many of Upper Canada's leaders, an Indigenous man who was to be tried for murdering a settler and early copies of a homegrown constitution aboard her.

She vanished with little trace, her final resting place unconfirmed for more than 200 years. 

But now some think they have a good idea where she might be found.

Oshawa-based home inspector Jim Van Loosen is a member of a group of recreational divers who has a strong lead on where the Speedy might be found — a tip from a man who claimed he had found her, but who died before he could prove it.

Amateur diver Jim Van Loosen hopes to mount an expedition to locate the wreck of HMS Speedy. He met with the man who says he found her and has coordinates to begin the search. (Philip Lee-Shanok/CBC)

"I've been diving on possibly over 100 different shipwrecks in various areas of Lake Ontario, but the draw of HMS Speedy is about history," said Van Loosen.

His research on the ship led him to Belleville entrepreneur Ed Burtt, who claimed to have found the wreck in 1991 using sonar equipment. Burtt believed the discovery gave him salvage rights to the Speedy under international maritime law.

Van Loosen approached Burtt before he passed away last year hoping to get his blessing to mount an expedition.

"We've never actually gone hunting for the physical portion of the wreck, so what we wanted to do was interview Burtt and see what his opinion was on allowing us to access it — if he did indeed own the rights to the wreck, which we're still not really entirely sure," said Van Loosen.

One of the most important ships in Canadian history

Van Loosen says he and Burtt both considered the schooner to have been one of the most important ships in Canadian history.

HMS Speedy was a British warship built in the late 1790's because of growing tensions with the United States that would eventually erupt into the War of 1812.

She set sail Oct. 7, 1804 from Queen's Quay in York — what's now Toronto — heading to Newcastle, a proposed town that was to be near where Presqu'ile Provincial Park is today (not to be confused with the present day Town of Newscastle located just west of Port Hope).

Aboard was a Ojibwe man accused of killing a white settler, who was to be tried at the court in Newcastle.

"They had got a rather controversial murder case on their hands, so rather than hold it locally, they decided to transfer the whole case to somewhere outside of what we now call the GTA," said Dr. Paul Adamthwaite of the Naval Marine Archive in Picton. "How they came to that decision remains a bit of a mystery, but they decided to transfer the judge, the prisoner, police officer, the witnesses — all of it lock, stock and barrel in one trip to Newcastle."

According to some accounts the Speedy was carrying the first police officer in Ontario to lose his life in the line of duty, the first Solicitor-General of Upper Canada, other high ranking elected officials and early attempts at a constitution for a new country.

'Tons and tons of history'

The Speedy never made it.

"It is known that the ship was never seen again after a quick storm went over it. Where it sank is in some doubt," said Adamthwaite.

Ed Burtt, of Belleville, believed he had found HMS Speedy in 1991 and claimed salvage rights, however, he was never able to prove it was the historic ship. He died in 2017. (Jim Van Loosen, Jim Kozmik and Mike Robertson)

Burtt, who became known as a shipwreck hunter because of an agreement with the Cuban government to search for Spanish galleons, believed he had located the Speedy in 1991.

Van Loosen recorded an interview with Burtt just months before he died.

"It's not like a treasure ship where there's tons and tons of gold. On this we got tons and tons of history on it, tons and tons of stuff that affects us today," Burtt told Van Loosen.

From how Indigenous people were dealt with by the justice system, to the location of a new colonial capital, to the loss of so many prominent leaders, the sinking of the Speedy badly crippled the small colony and may have been a pivotal moment in the country's development.

Jim Van Loosen exploring one of hundreds of wrecks beneath Lake Ontario. He would like to mount an expedition to find HMS Speedy so its historic significance can be confirmed. (Van Loosen, Kozmik and Robertson)

"This wreck changes the history of Canada, in my opinion," said Van Loosen. "I mean we have a wreck that went down in 1804 with copies of the constitution of the country 63 years before Canada became a country."

'He wanted to share it with the world'

Van Loosen said during his interview with him that Burtt revealed the coordinates of where he claimed the Speedy lies.

"He knew he was sick so maybe he was looking for somebody to pass the torch to," said Van Loosen. "I think the reason that he's been ignored is because there's no hard evidence. Burtt  told us in our interview that he wanted to share it with the world and that was his big thing."

As for Adamthwaite, he has his reservations about whether Burtt did actually find the Speedy. And he said where Burtt suggested he found the ship may not have been deep enough for the wreck to be well preserved.

Many wrecks like this one, the W.L. Wetmore near Tobermory, are well preserved by cold water. It's hoped the wreck of HMS Speedy is in as good shape despite possibly sinking in relatively shallow water. (Jim Van Loosen)

"He's never given me the exact latitude and longitude, but if he had absolute proof that it's the Speedy, I don't know," said Adamthwaite, who added that he's disappointed with the lack of research about the Speedy.

He said there lots of mythology surrounding the Speedy and the truth was possibly lost with her.

As for Van Loosen, he hopes to mount an expedition to the site Burtt identified despite doubts about what he found.

"We were really hoping that we could take [Burtt] out on a boat and use his GPS coordinates and really be able to pinpoint it and say yes, absolutely for sure this is or it is not HMS Speedy," said Van Loosen.

If anything, Van Loosen would like to make sure this long-buried part of Canada's history is brought to light and given the attention it deserves.

About the Author

Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC Toronto

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with more than two decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for CBC Toronto on television, radio and online. He is also a National Reporter for The World This Weekend on Radio One. Follow him on Twitter @CBCPLS.