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Construction Process


Over a decade of investigative research has been undertaken into the details of the H.M. S. Detroit's construction as well as the proposed business operations. The organization also has had the benefit of thoroughly evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of tall ship organizations across North America.

Relatively limited knowledge of the original construction of the H.M.S. Detroit has been determined. The original H.M.S. Detroit was undertaken in the summer of 1813. Plans of the 3 mast brig it is believed were destroyed in the fire at Fort Malden set by the British upon news of the American invasion.

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Charged with responsibility for constructing as authentic a replica as possible, retired Royal Canadian Navy Commander Hy Shenker undertook a thorough archival search for documentation. Through systematic correspondence with virtually all potential sources of information. Some of these sources include:

  • Prof. Fred Drake, Dept. of History, Brock University
  • William S. Dudley, Head, Historical Research Branch, Naval Historical Center, Department of the Navy, Washington, D.C.
  • M. Stephen Salmon, Archivist, British Archives Manuscript Division, Public Archives of Canada

Commander Shenker visited and consulted with officers of the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, the Maritime Museum of the Great Lakes at Kingston, and the Provincial Marine 1812 Association in Toronto. Reference was also made to the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museums commission (at Erie, Pa.), the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. The search confirmed the absence of plans. Prof. Drake, who prepared a massive and detailed volume on the naval War of 1812 on the lakes, and who did extensive research on every aspect of the subject, commented:

": as far as I know no draught plan of her exists. There is not one at the National Maritime Museum draught room at Greenwich. In Ottawa I do not think there is one either."

Prof. Drake, who has copies of both the Perry and Woolsey papers on the subject, further observes that the survey of Detroit by the Americans after of the Battle of Lake Erie notes only that she had ten ports per side, but gives neither dimensions nor lines. Archivist Salmon in his letter to Shenker, details numerous references to Detroit, but confirms, "a search of the various indexes and logical sources in our custody has failed produce any reference to plan or sketch of H.M.S. Detroit."

At the Public Archives Lord Cultural Resources Associate Susan Dunlop reviewed the considerable number of archival references cited by Salmon, and located two requisitions "of articles required at Amherstburg to complete the vessel ordered to be built at that Port", and an "Estimate of Materials and Workmanship" needed ("C" Series, R.G. 8, Vol. 729), bearing various dates form 24 November 1812, through 30 January 1813. Copies of these documents, with useful references to the dead eyes, anchors, canvas, paints and other materials ordered (though not necessarily delivered to Amherstburg) were forwarded to committee officers.

Meanwhile Lord Researcher, Gina Droganes pursued the possibility that Detroit might have been described during her subsequent career, after she was raised and re-floated as a merchant vessel in the Eagle Line, sailing from Buffalo to Chicago. Inquires with the Erie County Historical Society in Erie, Pa. led to a reference to the 1835 sales agreement (in the Dobbins Papers), Biographical data on George Miles, who purchased her in that year, and a May 19, 1836 Erie Gazette notice of Detroit being fitted out for her merchant duty. The only description include in that reference is the comment that she will afford "good accommodations" for passengers, "having, beside the main and steerage cabins, a very handsome cabin upon deck."

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The absence of historical plans presented a challenge to the organization. With knowledge of the historic significance of the vessel, being commissioned by King George III to be the largest vessel on the Great Lakes and to serve as "Flag Ship" of the British Fleet, the ship concept recommended in Phase I provided a line of priorities in the absence of detailed plans. Based on the knowledge of relevant shipyard practices in the period, E.Y.E. Marine Consultants of Dartmouth Nova Scotia were commissioned to prepare plans for a 20-gun ship, over-all length of 132 ft., the beam (moulded) of the brig of war to be 30'6", with a 13 ft. draft.

Authenticity is key to the concept of the replica of H.M.S. Detroit itself. The historic importance of the H.M.S. Detroit requires a seriousness of intent and a quality of presentation that must be authentic.

This does not mean that contemporary materials such as steel or contemporary techniques will be used. Certainly, they may and will, but on two conditions:

  • Finished surfaces will be presented as the authentic look of the period, through cladding or otherwise concealing other materials.
  • Written and spoken interpretation will identify any such materials or methods used.

As a matter of policy, authentic materials and methods are preferred. Necessity of alternatives must be proven, and is required for one or all of the following reasons: Safety, Maintenance, & Operational procedure standards.

In creating a replica of H.M.S. Detroit, the Committee undertakes to honour this vessel of such great importance in the history of two great nations with as authentic a recreation as possible.

In general, the choice of materials and methods will reflect the following priorities:

  • Preference will be given to any materials and methods known to have been used in the building of the original H.M.S. Detroit.
  • Failing such information, preference will be given to materials and methods known to have been used in the King's Navy Yard in Amherstburg in or before 1813.
  • Failing such information, preference will be given to materials and methods known to have been used in Royal Navy Yards in Canada, especially on the Great Lakes, in or before 1813.
  • Failing such information, preference will be given to materials and methods known to have been used in shipbuilding yards in Canada, especially on the Great Lakes, in or before 1813.
  • Failing such information, preference will be given to materials and methods known to have been used in shipbuilding of the period.

The use of other materials or methods must be justified by written recommendations reviewing all known sources as to the foregoing range of options, and identifying the specific reasons for deviation. The governing authority of the organization approves such proposals.

Any inauthentic materials or methods will be concealed with materials or methods to simulate the original appearance; however, spoken and written interpretation will make clear any underlying deviations from authenticity.

Modern below deck to passenger vessel standards observing period facades: will maximize business opportunities (e.g. charters), provides capability for long voyages, maximize historic atmosphere, complete electrical water and waste storage systems, increases comfort for passengers and crew. Complies with Canadian Coast Guard regulations and safety standards, lowers risk for insurance and liability.

Twin Diesel Engines: Aids in docking, allows scheduled services to be prompt, not limited by wind conditions, time saver, and safety regulations aids in insurance liabilities.

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Recommendations that any inauthentic materials or methods should be concealed in order to simulate the original appearance, as long as spoken a written interpretation reveal the underlying in authenticity. Consistent with this recommendation was the request to Hike Metal products Ltd. Of Wheatley, Ont. To cost a steel hull which is to be clad with appropriate wood entirely on the interior, and to the water line on the exterior. One significant note of concern has been raised with this approach. Canadian-born U.S. shipwright and marine artist Melbourn Smith, who was directing the complete rebuilding the U.S. Flag Ship Niagara at the time the original study was underway, warned that cladding steel is in his opinion likely to be more expensive and may provide as many maintenance problems as all-wood construction, due to rusting around the cladding joins especially. He recommended the use of laminated exotic hardwoods such as the bulletwood and other Central American woods resistant to rot that was employed in Niagara, which is a sailing replica.

Such materials would certainly offer no gain in authenticity over a steel hull clad with more traditional woods, and the difficulties that Smith alleged with cladding are more likely to be encountered if the entire exterior of the hull were clad, rather than just to the water line, as is intended. Experienced from the cladding of the fibreglass hull of H.M.S. Bee, a sailing schooner, at a cost of around $250,000 in 1983-84 for the Historical Naval and Military Establishment at Penetanquishene, warns against the maintenance costs of any exterior cladding below the water line, and recommends ending with a wale at the water line, with only sympathetic faux paint below. Furthermore, maintenance costs of all-wood construction are known to be high, requiring regular hauling, scraping, caulking and repair, even if the woods are comparatively rot-resistant.

Since the original study was completed in 1989 new technology in wood application to steel, epoxies have been developed that will provide a substantial increase of the wood cladding to in fact protect the steel hull from rust and erosion.

Accordingly, consultants further concur with the proposal to proceed with a clad steel hull.

The Hartlepool (U.K.) firm who did the impressively authentic rigging for H.M.S. Warrior in Portsmouth were asked to prepare a quotation on the work above the deck. They recommended steel or fibreglass masts with cladding, and polypropylene cordage - - in both cases to reduce maintenance. Sails would be installed so that they could be lowered as a demonstration on still days. The decision to clad steel is well-advised as a means of restraining costs of maintenance and replacement.
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A requisition written in Kingston on 14 January 1813 for "ordnance required for the new vessel ordered to be built at Amherstburg" calls for 16 24-pounder carronade and four 12-pounder long guns, with the note:

"It was proposed to mount the long guns in bridle ports, two in the bow and tow in the stern," (Public Archives of Canada "C" series, R.G. 8, Vol. 729)

Neither these guns nor any adequate replacements had reached Amherstburg by September of 1813, when Captain Barclay felt he had to sail. Instead, the ordnance on board Detroit was made up of guns from Fort Malden and other sources. They were therefore a curious assortment:

  • 2 long 24-pounders
  • 1 long 18-pounder on a pivot
  • 6 long 12-pounders
  • 8 long 9-pounders
  • 1 24-pounder carronade
  • 1 18-pounder carronade

The Committee has not attempted to replicate these guns. Instead, they have had all the guns cast at a Ford Motor Company plant in Windsor Ontario bearing the Ford emblem. The guns were cast for reason of economy, in two sizes only - 4 long guns, 16 short. The presentation is thus intended to be of the ordnance as it might have been, not as it unfortunately was.

The motley ordnance was a most important aspect of the uneven balance of the fight in the Americans' favour. Such a prominent variance from the historical conditions of the battle will inhibit visitors' understanding and appreciation of the achievement and limitations of the builders of the original vessel, and of the battle in which her crew were obliged to fight.

If the existing guns and carriages are to be retained, interpreters will have to explain that the ordnance is not what was really on board. An option would be to replace the ordnance over the first 6 years of operation, casting one of the six types each year so that a completely authentic armament would be on board after Year 5. The guns already cast may then be used in a decorative and/or promotional context, in the Navy Yard Park and on other sites around the Amherstburg area, or in promotional events.

If the original ordnance is cast over a 6-year period, the committee may consider the use of forged aluminium, which is being utilized for the guns at Niagara. The report form Erie is that these working guns cannot be visually distinguished for the original material, but weigh 750 lbs instead of 1800 lbs each, resulting in a total saving of 10 tons of weight on deck.

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The H.M.S. Detroit is constructed to Canadian Coast Guard standards for foreign going passenger vessels as well as certification by the United States Coast Guard. This will allow her to undertake all of the planned business activities in Canada and any equivalent operations planned in U.S. waters.

The marine architect designing the ship's construction plans is cognizant of the specific requirements. Based on the limited historical information available, further, the plans will be constantly reviewed by qualified consultants throughout the final two phases of construction.

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Because in fact contemporary methods of construction of the ship's hull was used annual undertaking of removal and lay-up of the vessel will not be necessary. Periodic replacement of elements of the vessel (estimated at 25 years for most significant mechanical components).

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