‘Schooner Days’ man

One hot and humid summer day in 1969 at Nancy Island, Wasaga Beach, an elderly man sat in a wheelchair in the shade off to the side of a growing crowd of people. Occasionally someone would go up to him, shake his hand, and chat for a few moments. This was the man who, following a hunch, had found the wreck of HMS Nancy almost a century after she was sunk in the Nottawasaga River during the War of 1812.

C.H.J. “Jerry” Snider had been a reporter, editor and columnist with the Toronto Telegram. He was also a marine historian, author, and Great Lakes sailor. In 1911 he and a friend went to what then was just an overgrown island in the river to see if it was the resting place of the wooden schooner. They discovered that it was.

The Nancy was a topsail schooner, nearly 80 feet long and built in 1789 at Detroit for the North West Company, the first private ship on the Upper Great Lakes. When the War of 1812 broke out betwween the U.S. and Britain she was comandeered by the British and used as a supply ship for their military in the conflict.

She was based at the mouth of the Nottawasaga River where she could receive supplies brought overland and take them to British military up the lakes. She was trapped there in 1814 by three American warships, which proceeded to bombard the schooner which burned and sank.

Snider speculated that her wreck must be on the river bottom, so he and his friend went to find out. In 1911 they took the train to Stayner, then walked the nine miles to Wasaga Beach where they rented a rowboat on the river and began searching for clues. Along the shore of the island they found a blackened old timber sticking out of the water.

Snider surmised that the wreck had been buried in enough silt coming down the river over the 90 years since the battle to have formed the island. Therefore, the timber must be part of her remains.

The two men dug it out, hoisted it on their shoulders, and walked the nine miles back to the train. It was eventually determined to indeed be from the Nancy.

In the 1920s a group was organized to raise the wreck, which they did and placed it on the island. By 1969 the provincial government had decided to use the Nancy‘s remains as the centrepiece of a new Museum of the Upper Lakes. So it was fitting that Jerry Snider, at the age of 90, was able to attend the official opening and see the fruits of his labours preserved for the public to see and learn about.

At some stage since then the Province changed its mind about having it as a “museum of the upper lakes” and revised it to what it is today: Nancy Island Historic Site and Wasaga Beach Provincial Park. The public can still learn about the Nancy‘s story there, along with other features of the park.

I met Jerry Snider once at his home in Toronto. I wanted to build a model of a Great Lakes schooner, but I had no plans to follow so I asked for his guidance about particular features. He was a widower by then and quite elderly, but he drew a couple of sketches to help me come close to the real thing. Unfortunately that model was never completed.

Jerry Snider died in 1971. He wrote several books about warfare on the Great Lakes including the story of HMS Nancy. His columns from the Telegram “Schooner Days” and other writings have been preserved in several archives, including this one: http://navalmarinearchive.com/collections/chj_snider.html

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