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The Graveyards of Lake Ontario

Even a quick glance through archival lists of Great Lakes vessels reveals a shocking truth: many of the ships have sunk. In the years since 1679, when La Salle's elegant and ill-fated Griffon disappeared, more than 10,000 ships have gone down, taking their crews and passengers with them. Almost 2,000 sailors died on the Great Lakes in the single decade of 1863 to 1873, and in the "worst" November storm of 1913, 19 ships and 248 crew members lost their lives. In comparison to the wind-tossed Lakes of Huron, Superior and Michigan, Ontario has a reputation for sedateness. But it is a relative measure; in the fall, when polar air collides with lingering summer humidity, even the smallest of the Great Lakes can be treacherous.

Prince Edward County: No scene could be more tranquil than that of gentle waves lapping against the midsummer coves of pastoral Prince Edward County, yet no water could be more terrifying than the stormy swells that slam against its shores in October and November. At least 2/3 of the shipwrecks that occurred on Lake Ontario during the schooner and early steam era took place between Point Petre and the Main Duck Islands, leading to speculation about a mysterious "Marysburgh Vortex." Today, over 50 known wreck sites lie beneath the surface near the County's southern shore. Hundreds of people - skippers, crews and passengers -perished in Lake Ontario's sudden gales, often within sight of safety and salvation. Their watery resting places include:

• The Annie Falconer -Well-preserved, this 2-masted schooner sits upright in 25 metres of water, between the False Duck and Timber Islands. She sank in November of 1904, while carrying a cargo of coal.
• The Olive Branch - Much of the equipment is still on board this intact wreck, resting in 30 metres of water near False Duck Island. Her captain and crew went down with her on the night of September 30, 1880.
• The John Randall
- The crew of this steam barge survived when their vessel sank in November of 1920 in School House Bay off Main Duck Island. Their families had given them up for lost, when they were discovered safe in the care of the Island's lighthouse keeper.

Kingston Harbour: Further east, where the Lake meets the mighty St. Lawrence River at Kingston, another strip of shipwrecks testifies to the deadly risk involved in navigating the Great Lakes highway:

• The George C. Marsh - This fully intact 3-masted schooner lies in 26 metres of water close to the Kingston Harbour. The aging ship, co-owned by a Belleville businessman and her captain, C J. Smith, had set off on August 8, 1917 with a load of coal from Oswego, New York, en route to Kingston. Though the day began bright and sunny, a violent storm overtook the ship not far from its destination. After hours of fighting the wind and rain, the schooner went down, taking with it all but 2 of its 14 crew and passengers. Among those drowned were the wives and young children of Captain Smith and his deckhand, Neil McLennan.
• The Comet - Two massive paddlewheels lie 25 metres under the water near Simcoe Island outside of Kingston Harbour. The steam-driven side paddle wheeler collided with the schooner Exchange near False Duck Island during heavy winds in 1861; lacking power, it drifted east and finally sunk below the surface.

Presqu'ile: To the west, near the village of Brighton and the lakeside town of Cobourg, another underwater graveyard is littered with the wrecks of ships that foundered on the area's shoals and sandbars. (Some mariners refer ominously to the "Sophiasburg Triangle.") One legendary tragedy, in which some of early Upper Canada's leading citizens lost their lives, has drawn the attention of historians and shipwreck hunters:

The H.M.S. Speedy - Although it has not been positively identified, a hull located in the waters near Brighton Bay may be that of the ill-fated Speedy, a schooner that sank in a fierce Lake Ontario storm while en route from York (Toronto) to Presqu'ile on October 8, 1804. Among the 24 ill-fated passengers and crew were the Solicitor General of Upper Canada, a District Magistrate, and member of the Lower House of the Assembly.

Toronto Harbour Fire, not fury, caused one of the single greatest losses of life on Lake Ontario waters:

• The Noronic -In the early morning of September 17, 1949, fire swept through this luxurious Canada Steamship liner, docked in Toronto Harbour on its way from Detroit to the Thousand Islands. Despite the efforts of city firefighters, 118 of the 695 passengers died in their cabins, smothered by smoke. The resulting investigation into the tragedy led to stricter- and much more expensive - safety regulations, effectively ending the luxury cruise ship industry on Lake Ontario.

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