Colwyn Beynon, Special to the News
The kids say, “Let’s go to Hutch’s on the Beach dad!” and away the family goes for a day on Hamilton’s east coast. Hutch’s is packed and classic cars from all over southern Ontario are sitting in the parking lot with their hoods up showing off their glittering engine blocks with all the bells and whistles, polished to mirror quality.
The sea gulls swoop and dive as children toss them vinegar-soaked potato chips. Further down Van Wagner’s Beach Road, Baranga’s Restaurant is bouncing to pop music and the laughter of young people batting a volleyball back and forth over a net. Walkers stroll the beach front trail breathing in a soft eastern wind off the crystal blue waters of Lake Ontario.
Few have any idea what this place looked like 200 years ago and if they did enquire they would certainly pass on the volleyball and french fries in awe of the desperate sea battles, shipwrecks and hand-to-hand fighting that ravaged this treasure spot during the War of 1812.
Our American cousins, convinced that we sought liberation from British Imperial persecution, stormed across the lake in great sailing vessels and trudged on foot with thousands of blue-jacketed infantry to take Stoney Creek, then Burlington Heights and York (Toronto).
The British fleet of warships under Sir James Yeo and the American fleet commanded by Commodore Isaac Chauncey had, in the past, engaged in many sorties on the high seas of Ontario, firing salvos at one another as the wind allowed, for only broadside volleys scored the major damage to the opponents sails, masts and gunnels.
Things came to a head, on Sept. 28, 1813, when the two fleets met off the city of York and battled with their carronades and big guns blazing away.
The Wolfe, which was Yeo’s flagship, took the brunt of the enemy attack and — with its sails and masts ripped and splintered — limped to a spot just north of the present day ship canal and beached herself on the sandy bottom. A blockhouse and stone fortification was hastily built and the ship was made ready once again for battle.
In 1794, Lt. Governor Simcoe had the King’s Head Inn built on the south end of the beach strip south of the present Baranga’s Restaurant (the old Van Wagner’s School).
It was two floors high and outfitted to accommodate travellers passing through to York. The inn served as a pleasant respite for he and his wife as they toured Canada West.
On May 10, 1813, the Americans found out it also housed food and equipment for the British army, so the marines made a seaborn raid on the facility. They trashed the place, driving off the few militiamen of the 5th Lincolns that were assigned to protect it.
With the southern entrance to the strip now destroyed, all troop movements by the 49th Regiment of Foot and the 8th Kings from Ancaster would have to retreat through Burlington Heights to escape the advancing American land forces.
As it turned out, by a stroke of genius on the part of the Brits, a highly unlikely night attack on the Yanks encamped at Stoney Creek, completely confused them and they retired from Canada never to return.
With their camp at Burlington Heights (Dundurn Park) now safe, the British soldiers and militia regrouped and the peninsula was safe once again from intruders. Over the years, scores of magnificent sailing ships went down in the lake right off Hamilton Beach. Hundreds of seamen, fishermen and passengers met their fate in the cold, deep waters of this great inland ocean.
The ribs and beams of many old schooners and fighting ships continue to poke their heads out of the sands every now and again as reminders of the battle cries, screams of pain and the clash of naval cutlasses, as those warriors fought to the death for what they believed was a just cause.
There are no lofty, chalky white sails coming over the horizon now; no dashing sea captains, resplendent in their cutaways, stovepipe collars and cocked hats. Only a soft breeze, and smiling faces of thousands of walkers out for the day, enjoying the peace and tranquility that nature provides in ample quantity.
Those diving gulls, many of whom may be descended from their forebears of 200 years ago, continue to soar about as we look on jealously at their noble view of the serene panorama below.
What a pleasure it is to sit in peace contemplating the carnage that once prevailed here in this glorious place, so many years ago.
Mountain historian Colwyn Beynon can be reached at email@example.com.