New York state

Judge says Lake Erie shipwreck belongs to state

From Online

A 19th century schooner that lies at the bottom of Lake Erie belongs to New York state, not the salvagers who found it and want to raise and preserve it as a tourist attraction, a federal judge ruled.

The Abandoned Shipwrecks Act of 1987 gives ownership of vessels embedded in submerged state property to the state, U.S. District Judge Richard Arcara wrote in a decision that could derail the ambitious preservation plans.

Massachusetts-based Northeast Research LLC, which claimed title to the 80-foot wooden ship under maritime law before the state intervened, believes the vessel had a role in the War of 1812 and the Underground Railroad.

The group will appeal Arcara's ruling to a higher court, attorney Peter Hess said Wednesday. He said the case should have gone to trial.

"Northeast Research has spent over $1 million and five years ... identifying and documenting (the ship)," Hess said. "The state of New York has done absolutely nothing."

The company, which operates in Dunkirk, west of Buffalo, envisions raising the well-preserved, two-masted schooner and displaying it in an ice-cold freshwater aquarium on Buffalo's waterfront. Divers have already recovered and documented artifacts, including American and Spanish coins, buttons, rings and other jewelry, that would be part of the display.

The state's general policy is to leave shipwrecks alone.

Arcara ruled the ship was clearly abandoned, since it sat for more than 150 years after it went down in 170 feet of freshwater off the western New York shore.

"What matters is not whether the schooner would have been located, but rather whether anyone even tried looking for it," the judge wrote in a decision dated last week.

The ship's identity is part of the dispute.

A state-hired expert said the presence of grain and hickory nuts in the cargo hold meant the vessel was likely "a nameless 1830s schooner that sank carrying grain," Arcara's ruling said.

Northeast divers believe the schooner is the historically important Caledonia, used in the fur trade in the early 1800s before being commandeered by the British military at the outbreak of the War of 1812 and then captured by the Americans a year later.