Shipwrecked in Lake Ontario

Michael Redhill's novel Consolation uses the contents of a shipwreck in Lake Ontario as one of its main sources of suspense. There is something mystifying — almost romantic — about shipwrecks; perhaps it's the possibility of hidden treasure, or, more practically, the link they provide to another time, the ship as an afterimage of a civilization different from our own. Although the shipwreck in Redhill's novel is fictional, several shipwrecks do lie in Lake Ontario, but they're forgotten like marooned sailors, drowned in the city's collective amnesia.

One of the oldest of these shipwrecks, the Sligo, was built in 1860. Originally known as the Prince of Wales, she had sailed the Atlantic Ocean as far as the United Kingdom and South Africa, before taking on her new name and serving in the Great Lakes as a commercial vessel and later a tow barge.

One September morning in 1918, another ship was towing the Sligo towards the western edge of the harbour in a fierce storm. Her cargo was some 90 tonnes of limestone rock that was to become part of the highway that is now the Queen Elizabeth Way. Both boats began taking on water too fast, and in order to save the lead ship — or perhaps by accident — the Sligo was cut loose, her crew forced to navigate to land in a lifeboat. Her final resting place is about two kilometres south of the Humber River mouth, 22 metres (65 feet) below the surface of the lake.

Since neither the ship nor her cargo was deemed valuable enough to recover, they were left in the mud at the bottom of the lake, where they still lie today. Floating on the surface of the water like a gravestone is a white Javex bottle, the only indication of the history submerged beneath the lip of the lake.

It wasn't until 1980 that human eyes once again looked upon the Sligo, when a diver named Don McIntyre located her remains. At the turn of the millennium, Kimberly Monk, then a marine archaeology student and president of the Toronto chapter of Save Ontario Shipwrecks, did extensive research on the wreck, including helping to create an incredible bird's-eye-view composite of 165 photographs.

About 120 yards west of the Sligo lies another wreck, the Julia B. Merrill (pictured below), that tells as much about the people of Toronto as it does about Canadian nautical history.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Canadian National Exhibition purchased a number of out-of-commission schooners and boats to entertain crowds at Sunnyside Park. These ships were not sailed, but rather lit on fire, torpedoed, and sunk amid fireworks displays. Onlookers in Sunnyside Park applauded the spectacle, one of the best sources of entertainment possible in Depression-era Toronto. Several other such wrecks lie off the CNE grounds, each covered in black scars from its violent end.

A third wreck, the Baltic Belle, lies in the lagoon just off Algonquin and Snake Islands near the fire hall. Built in Finland around 1914, the vessel was a 40-foot wooden sailing ship that eventually made her way to Estonia. There, six men and one woman used her to escape post-World War II Europe, sailing all the way to South America, where they sold the ship.

From South America, the ship came north, sailing up rivers and across the Great Lakes. She finally arrived in Toronto's inner harbour, where she was purchased by some island residents. They were repairing the Baltic Belle when a storm exploded over the city, sinking her on the spot, a strange ending for a ship that had travelled so far. It is said that you can still make her out through the waters on a clear summer day.

In 2003, the Toronto Islands' theatre company Shadowland resurrected the Baltic Belle on stage. The play, Quixsand, told the fictional story of an Estonian nurse arriving in Toronto hoping to salvage the ship and continue her life's journey.

A number of companies in the city, such as Scuba 2000, run diving trips out to the Sligo and Julia B. Merrill in the summer. Both can be visited with an open water diving license. Although warnings abound that the water is too cold, a Scuba 2000 representative told me it is a comfortable dive, even without a hood, on warmer days.

It is unfortunate (although unavoidable) that these treasures of Toronto's history are so difficult to access: they lend a sense of romance and history to a city that is often considered short on both. They still sit there, though, ribs exposed, translucent ghosts whispering from depths we rarely explore. For the intrepid explorer, they remain links to Toronto's past, buried treasures the city hides a little too well.