27 April 2012

Historical Toronto: Ships in Drydock

Ships in drydock: that’s how I think of them ... on the cryptic monument occupying quiet space at Front and Jarvis Streets. I’m certain it’s meaningless to 98% of the passers-by. It was to me. It has a bench on each side. People like to sit there, especially when the sun is out. It’s a prime spot for a moment’s restoration amid the St. Lawrence Market bustle ... the elderly, the incapacitated, the bored, can wait for their shopper-companions; a street person will take a break from wheeling her cart of worldly goods. 
Rene Robert Cavalier Sieur de La Salle "Griffin" 1678

Commodore Sir James Yeo Flagship 1814 "St. Lawrence" 1812-15

 The captions above show the circumferential wording on each of the two medallions. Toronto Historical Board plaques at either side tell us the medallions were created by noted sculptor Emanuel Hahn and carved by Louis Temporale for installation on the Clifton Gate Memorial Arch at Niagara Falls. We are told the original intent was to commemorate “early pioneers,” including a passing mention of William Lyon Mackenzie (not to denigrate the man and his contributions to Upper Canada) but oddly, what has all this to do with iconic ships?

A little more investigation revealed an embarrassing history (i.e. what the plaques omit; then again, there’s only so much room on a plaque). The said Memorial Arch was duly built and dedicated in 1938; it was demolished in 1967. Some time later these two rescued art works were reinstalled on what was once our town of York waterfront. Ah-ha, ... waterfront ... ships. The tenuous connection? Not exactly.

The concept of the Memorial Arch, under the supervision of an Ontario government cabinet minister, had two purposes: to celebrate one hundred years of responsible government in Canada, and to welcome visitors entering our country across the Niagara River. The phrase responsible government inevitably conjured unhappy shades of the 1837 Rebellion, provoking some still-tender sensitivities a century later. Criticism arose over some of the monument’s historical allusions. Prime Minister Mackenzie King, despite having been consulted about the design, deplored the inclusion of some American names associated with the Hunters’ Lodges raiders—one gets the impression that the design changed a few times betwixt paper and actual construction!

Clifton Gate Memorial Arch, date unknown, Looking at History
The Memorial Arch was doomed to a lifespan of less than thirty years. Impeding the widening of the Niagara Parkway was a big excuse for removing it. As far as I can ascertain—accounts vary—nearly all the carvings disappeared except for what’s now displayed on Front Street and at William Lyon Mackenzie House. Anyone of historical bent can pursue the details at many websites such as “The Offending Arch” at Historical Narratives of Early Canada:   
and Looking at History: https://sites.google.com/site/lookingathistory/the-rebellion-trilogy/three-rebellions/remembering-rebellion-the-infernal-arch.

What I find incomprehensible and disgraceful is much loss of the art. There were four panels of tributes: explorers; Loyalists; the War of 1812 and Tecumseh; and reformer William Lyon Mackenzie (grandfather of the then-PM). The Front Street plaques do not mention that renowned illustrator C.W. Jefferys designed the four large panels. Neither Jefferys nor the equally renowned Hahn lived to see the dismantling.

Let’s have a closer wee look at the subjects on our lonely medallions, which seem to be almost forgotten in the panoply of official heritage plaques.

La Salle (1643-1687) was a very early explorer, the first European to travel the length of the Mississippi River. On a subsequent exploration trip, La Salle became stranded in Texas and was killed there. Le Griffon was a 45-ton barque he had built on the Niagara River above the falls, in order to sail the upper Great Lakes. The ship disappeared on a return voyage from Lake Michigan to New France with a load of furs. Finding Le Griffon is sometimes called the “holy grail” of Great Lakes shipwreck hunters. Indeed, one underwater exploration group believes it recently located the site, but the discovery is in limbo under a tsunami of international litigation. Clearly La Salle and Le Griffon were part of the tribute to explorers.

Yeo (1782-1818) was a naval officer appointed commodore and commander-in-chief on the lakes of Canada in March 1813. He arrived in Upper Canada just after the invasion of York, knowing it was crucial to protect the Kingston shipyards and the lake lifeline to troops in Niagara. In practice, Yeo’s position was subordinate to Sir George Prevost, the army general and British North America governor-in-chief. Prevost and his army officials caused no small problems for the naval commander, not to mention the general’s blunders at Lake Champlain. The great warship St. Lawrence was launched for Yeo in early fall of 1814, a newly effective threat to the American navy—only long enough to serve for a few months before winter came. Word of the war’s end followed soon after. So we know where Yeo and his flagship belonged on the ill-fated Arch.
James Lucas Yeo was a brilliant officer whose selfless devotion to duty contributed in large measure to his early death. He deserved well of his country, and he has justly earned an honoured place among the heroes of the War of 1812.[1]

I love surprises in my neighbourhood.

In memory of the invasion 199 years ago on April 27th.

[1] John W. Spurr, “YEO, Sir James Lucas,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online (http://www.biographi.ca/009004-119.01-e.php?&id_nbr=2722 : accessed 30 March 2012).

© Brenda Dougall Merriman, 2012


Cathy said...

Wow, it's amazing that something like that would be demolished. I wonder if it appears in that 4D historic jigsaw puzzle of Toronto??

BDM said...

No, the Arch was in Niagara Falls. But Toronto's Performing Arts Lodge is not in the puzzle!

Cathy said...

Oops so much for my reading comprehension! Great story, nice detective work.