Discovery Harbour Celebrates its 200th Anniversary

Jul 21, 2014
Although my husband and I didn’t get a chance to swab the deck of the two replica tall ships or explore the officers’ quarters on our recent visit to Discovery Harbour in Penetanguishene due to a torrential downpour, it was definitely not a washout!  As we ventured through the rain to the other buildings on site and the recently opened H.M.S. Tecumseth Centre, we were enthusiastically welcomed by costumed and knowledgeable staff interpreters with stories of this once-thriving naval base, occupied by the military until 1856.   The officer’s quarters, an impressive stone building built in 1845, is the only original building on site, with the others faithfully reconstructed and furnished to the time period.
Originally known as “His Majesty’s Establishment on Lake Huron”, the site is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year.  Events marking this milestone are being held throughout the summer of 2014 – Family Discovery Day on July 26th, a Local Heritage Dinner (presented by Simcoe County Farm Fresh) on July 27th, the Festival of Peace from August 9th to 10th, featuring Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy in concert, and the “Yarn Bombing” project is unveiled on July 26th and on display until August 10th
Once home to over 20 vessels and over 70 people - officers and their families, sailors, civilian workers and soldiers – this naval base in its peaceful surroundings was built to safeguard access to what was then Upper Canada after the War of 1812.   And today’s peacefulness is deceiving.  Our interpreters explained how isolated it was for those men posted here, especially during the winter months.  To pass the time, the men played games, sometimes gambling for their rum rations (which was not allowed and there were strict penalties for those caught).  The unoccupied sailors’ barracks seem spacious, but this single room was packed full with men living in close quarters - sleeping in hammocks, eating, playing, drinking and not bathing regularly.
Officers, soldiers and visiting dignitaries occupied separate housing.  Early in his career, the Naval Establishment was surveyor Lieutenant Henry Wolsey Bayfield’s winter home.  Tools of his surveying trade, maps and charts are spread out in the Naval Surveyor’s House.
Few women lived on the site and those that did suffered from the isolation.  The home of Captain Samuel Roberts is surrounded by a sturdy and pointed wooden fence, where he resided with his wife and her unmarried sister.  The home is comfortably furnished and needed to be, as the women spent most of their time indoors, unable to take a daytime stroll, as public drunkenness was a common occurrence among the men.  Keating House, my favourite building on site, was home to James Keating, the Fort Adjutant, his wife and large family for 20 years.  As Adjutant, Keating was responsible for coordinating the overall operation of the garrison.  Their home, set well away from the sailors’ barracks, has the air of a comfortable and bustling household.  It’s not difficult to imagine the Keating children playing with the croquet set on the lawn at the front of the house.
Perhaps the most poignant site is the gravesites of two brothers, Privates John and Samuel McGarraty, complete with tombstones, tucked into a small clearing just off the path and sheltered by trees.  It’s said that one brother died of fever while the other, staying with him while others went for help, died from the fear of being alone in the wilderness.
We took a welcome break from the rain to tour the beautiful new H.M.S. Tecumseth Centre, where the skeletal hull of the 1815 H.M.S. Tecumseth lies in climate-controlled state.  The bilingual exhibits outline the relationship this naval establishment had to the War of 1812.  
And, although we didn’t make it to the replica tall ships, H.M.S. Tecumseth and H.M.S. Bee, moored at the dock, we are already planning our return visit to tour these and the officers’ quarters. The two ships are open for above and below deck tours, and there are other vessels to explore, too.   Discovery Harbour is a hidden historic gem, and its 16 sites offer a glimpse into a significant era of Canada’s history.   While on site, you can enjoy a meal at the Captain Roberts’ Table Restaurant, and take in a live theatre production at the King’s Wharf Theatre, also located here.
We rounded off our visit to the area with a tour of Sainte-Marie among the Hurons (where we also dodged raindrops), the beautiful S.S. Keewatin in Port McNicholl and a stay at Diverse Rentals’ Floatel in Penetanguishene’s harbour. 
Discovery Harbour has extended hours in 2014 and is open into September – check the website for hours of operation before heading out.