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 over disputed territory on the west coast, nearly 3000 miles away. The Oregon Crisis triggered fears of war and prompted the building of four towers to protect Kingston, the Royal Navy dockyard and the entrance to the Rideau Canal. Cathcart Tower on Cedar Island was one of the four, the others being Murney Tower, Shoal Tower, and the Fort Frederick Tower. Fort Henry had been completed 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 had to be cut by skilled stone masons to ensure that the walls were strong enough to withstand the impact of cannon balls from enemy ships. In the direction where the enemy was expected to attack, the walls were fourteen feet thick. The part of the tower closest to Fort Henry had walls that were six feet thick.
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 was capsized by high waves. While two men were able to swim to shore and four were saved by a rescue party from the Royal Naval dockyards on Point Frederick, the other 17 men drowned that day. On 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. A community fund was initiated and over £500 was raised for the families, thanks to the generosity of many Kingstonians.
Our second story takes place about a century later. It, too, is intimately associated with water—in this case, Navy Bay, which lies 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. Thermodynamics and strength of materials were added in the early part of the 20th century. By the end of the 1930s, cadets could specialize in mechanical, electrical or civil engineering in the last year of their four-year program.
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, saying in his submission, “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 was the first submarine designed and built in Canada. The submarines built in Montreal during WW1 were US-designed.
RMC’s submarine became a popular attraction for visitors, including the UK’s famous Field Marshall Monty Montgomery who was in command of all Allied ground forces during the Battle of Normandy (Operation Overlord) from D-Day on June 6, 1944 until September 1, 1944. He is pictured here with Canadian naval officer Commodore Horatio Nelson Lay.
Today, Navy Bay is the final resting place for this fine submarine. When orders came, it was dismantled and sunk in the bay. As you look out onto the bay, take pride in this story of Canadian ingenuity.
Helen Cutts, KAM Visitor in Residence, Writer
Credit for cover photo of Cathcart Tower: The Ottawa Citizen