On each side of Fort Henry lies a bay: Deadman’s Bay to the east and Navy Bay to the west. These two bays have stories to tell, about 100 years apart. One is a story of tragedy, the other of ingenuity. Both are about hard work and determination. With the spring weather now here, you may want to walk around the perimeter of Fort Henry and reflect on these two stories related to interesting aspects of Canada’s history.
The first story begins in 1845 when the construction of a Martello tower on Cedar Island was authorized. This was a time when tensions between British North America and the United States had escalated. They were disputing territory on the west coast, nearly 3000 miles away. The Oregon Crisis triggered fears of war. It prompted the building of four towers to protect Kingston, the Royal Navy dockyard and the Rideau Canal’s entrance. Cathcart Tower on Cedar Island is one of the four. The others are Murney Tower, Shoal Tower, and the Fort Frederick Tower. Fort Henry was complete in 1836.
Building a large stone fortress on an island was no small task. Limestone had to be ferried across the bay and hauled to the building site, the highest point on Cedar Island. A huge amount of limestone was to be cut by skilled stone masons, ensuring the walls were strong enough to withstand the impact of cannon balls from enemy ships. The walls are fourteen feet thick in the direction they expected the enemy to attack. The part of the tower closest to Fort Henry had walls that were six feet thick.
A Tragic Ending
Tragedy struck on September 12, 1846. It was a Saturday, the last day of a standard, six-day workweek for the stone masons, carpenters and general labourers who had spent the week on the island. They were headed home to reunite with their families and enjoy a day of rest before resuming work on Monday morning. On that day, 23 workmen got into a jolly boat for the routine trip from Cedar Island to the docks at Point Frederick. Most would have been wearing heavy boots and toolbelts.
As they set off to cross Hamilton Cove (now called Deadman’s Bay), their boat capsized by high waves. Two men were swam to shore. A rescue party from the Royal Naval dockyards on Point Frederick saved four. The other 17 men drowned that day. On the Monday, Kingston’s Mayor John Counter convened a special meeting at City Hall, having heard on the weekend that the tragedy created 15 widows and left 72 children without fathers. Many Kingstonians generously raised over £500 for the families, initiating a community fund.
Our second story takes place about a century after the events at Deadman’s Bay. It too, intimately associates with water—in this case, Navy Bay lying between Fort Henry and Point Frederick. The name Navy Bay goes back to the period of colonial rule when the British Navy had docks and a massive shipbuilding operation on Point Frederick. Today, the land is the site of the Royal Military College of Canada. When the college was established in 1875, it offered engineering courses that were geared to the needs of the army. Courses such as engineering drawing and mechanics were core elements of the program. Early in the 20th century, they added thermodynamics and strength of materials. By the end of the 1930s, cadets could specialize in mechanical, electrical or civil engineering in the last year of their four-year program.
An Underwater Exploration Craft
It was the early 1950s when work began on an unusual project with connections to Navy Bay. In October 1951, the Head of the Mechanical Engineering Department at RMC, Lieutenant-Colonel Peter King, submitted a proposal to the Defence Research Board of Canada. This new entity, established in 1947, co-ordinated science, research and development for the three armed services.
King believed that existing methods for locating objects on the bottom of relatively shallow waters were inadequate. The main drawback of sending divers down was fatigue. He proposed an Undersea Exploration Craft. In his submission he says, “It seems that a device with a two man crew in the nature of a midget submarine…would permit reasonably rapid search of the bottom without tiring the operators unduly.”
With the project approved, the RMC Machine Shop staff got to work on the construction. King had proposed some innovative design features to ensure that his submarine would be lightweight. For example, his design called for the air exhausted by the engines to be fed into the crew compartment and vented out its bottom. In addition to ensuring fresh air to the crew, this was important for the construction of a relatively light hull since the pressure inside the submarine would be the same as the outside hydrostatic pressure, independent of depth.
The RMC team was able to construct a submarine that weighed 7200 pounds. By September 1953, three trials had been completed in depths ranging from 20 to 30 feet of water, with adjustments between the trials to improve buoyancy control. In the third and final trial, the submarine was able to operate successfully for three hours and move at two feet per second. According to RMC, to the best of its knowledge, this is the first submarine designed and built in Canada. The US designed the submarines built in Montreal during WW1.
A Visitor Attraction, Now and Then
RMC’s submarine became a popular attraction for visitors. This included the UK’s famous Field Marshall Monty Montgomery. He commanded all Allied ground forces during the Battle of Normandy (Operation Overlord) from D-Day on June 6, 1944 until September 1, 1944.
Today, Navy Bay is the final resting place for this fine submarine. They dismantled and sunk it in the bay when orders came. As you look out onto the bay, take pride in this story of Canadian ingenuity.
So there you have it, two very different stories of Canadian loss and pride, in two different, yet close, Kingston bays: Deadman’s Bay and Navy Bay.
Written By: Helen Cutts, KAM Visitor in Residence
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