Opinion Column

War hero’s Ontario service burned bright

By Tom Villemaire, Special to Postmedia Network

A vintage image of the lighthouse at the mouth of Southwestern Ontario's Thames River, at Lake St. Clair, where  Claude  Cartier spent 15 years as the lighthouse keeper until his death in 1855. (Submitted Photo)

A vintage image of the lighthouse at the mouth of Southwestern Ontario's Thames River, at Lake St. Clair, where  Claude  Cartier spent 15 years as the lighthouse keeper until his death in 1855. (Submitted Photo)

Claude Cartier worked everywhere, or so it appeared.

He was born in Yamaska, Quebec, on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River in 1787 and was trained as a tailor.

On New Year’s Eve in 1810, he decided he had to do something different, so he enlisted in the Canadian Fencibles.During the War of 1812, Cartier took part in the capture of Ogdensburg, New York. Cartier’s platoon was part of a combined force of about 500 regular and militia temporarily based in Prescott, Upper Canada that attacked the Americans defending Ogdensburg and captured it. Cartier was wounded in the leg – an injury that would plague him for the rest of his life – but it didn’t prevent him from finishing his service during the war.

He fought at the Battle of Crysler’s Farm, where 900 militia and British regulars faced off against an American army of 8,000, defeating it so substantially as to end any further threat to Montreal and area.

He also took part in the Battle of Lacolle Mill, a defensive action in which initially 80 men of his regiment held off 4,000 Americans. They inflicted 267 casualties on the Americans, versus 61 casualties for the Canadians.

By the war’s end, Cartier had reached the rank of sergeant. For some reason, he headed to Ohio where he took up tailoring again. In 1817, he moved to Upper Canada, living in York before moving to Simcoe, still tailoring, and only 30 years old.

At some point he married and over time had 11 children with his wife, Anne. In 1830 they moved to Chatham. Cartier bought land along the Thames from Peter Lacroix and opened an inn named the Chatham Hotel. He thrived as one of Chatham’s founders and vanguard businessmen. The hotel’s corn whiskey at three-cents a glass, good, simple food in ample portions and huge New Year’s Eve parties all only enhanced the reputation of both Cartier and his establishment.

“The gaiety of the numerous attendants, the management and arrangement of the room, the music, and unremitting attention of Mr. Cartier, would do credit to any place of ten times the age of Chatham,” reported the Chatham Gleaner, of one such New Year’s bash.

Eventually Cartier enlarged the tavern and renamed it the Steamboat Hotel. It hosted Township council meetings and other community organizations, including the Chatham Vigilant Society for the Suppression of Felony. That should be on a tee-shirt.

Cartier was on the first school trustee board in the 1830s. He was made ensign of the Kent volunteer militia in 1838 when they were dispatched to Windsor to be ready for an invasion of a rebel army.

But Cartier’s constant limping while dealing with all the demands of an active public house eventually wore on him. He petitioned the government for a post at the new lighthouse at the mouth of the Thames. In 1840 he was given the job of lighthouse keeper and moved in. He stayed on until his death in 1855, packing in a remarkable life in 68 years. Cartier’s family retained the position as lighthouse keeper until 1950.

Tom Villemaire is a writer based in Toronto and the Bruce Peninsula. Tom@historylab.ca