When I began planning the Caroline Abbott books for American Girl, I quickly decided to make Caroline’s father a shipbuilder. The war in the Great Lakes was largely a naval war, and I wanted Caroline and her family to be part of it.
There was a large and well documented naval shipyard in Sackets Harbor, New York. Builders there worked on huge ships like the Oneida.
I squeezed the fictional Abbott’s Shipyard just down the shore from the naval yard in Sackets Harbor. It wouldn’t have made sense to have the men at Abbott’s also building enormous vessels. Instead, I decided that Caroline’s family shipyard would produce gunboats.
While writing the series, I studied pictures of gunboats. Recently, however, I got to see a real one! Part of one, anyway.
A sunken British gunboat was discovered decades ago in a small inlet on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River. Only the bottom, or hull, remained. Over the years, shifting ice likely tore the upper wood away.
The location is about 30 miles from the eastern end of Lake Ontario. (Sackets Harbor, where Caroline lives, is very close to that eastern end of the lake.) Naval historians believe this boat was built during the War of 1812.
Parks Canada Underwater Archaeology Service raised the remains of the shipwreck in 1967. As you can imagine, it was tricky work!
The remains are now safely exhibited at Fort Wellington National Historic Site of Canada, which is a wonderful place to learn more about the War of 1812 in the area were the Caroline books are set.
Gunboats were of vital importance on Lake Ontario during the War of 1812. They were shallow boats designed to carry one or more guns that could fire on other ships or on targets along the shoreline. They were also used to carry supplies or troops. Gunboats had sails, but they also carried long oars called sweeps, which required six or eight men to row.
The gunboat at Fort Wellington is displayed in an exhibit that includes this marvelous painting, making it easy to imagine how it was originally used.
You can compare the model and the painting with what’s left of the vessel.
Other exhibits tell different parts of the War of 1812 story, and helped me imagine life during Caroline Abbott’s time.
After reading about and thinking about and imagining gunboats, it was exciting to see the bones of a real one on display! If you have a chance to explore Sackets Harbor, New York, I highly recommend a sidetrip to Fort Wellington National Historic Site in Prescott, Ontario.