U.S. courts

Fate of War of 1812 shipwreck playing out in U.S. courts

By Randy Boswell - Postmedia News

The legal battle over a recently discovered Lake Erie shipwreck — believed to be the storied, Canadian-built brig Caledonia from the War of 1812 — took another twist last week in a New York court as the U.S. salvage company that found the sunken vessel rejected accusations by state lawyers it has “plundered” the wreck site and disturbed human remains.

The struggle over the fate of the well-preserved wreck — purported to be a 203-year-old troop transport involved in the first British-Canadian victory of the War of 1812 — comes with the clock ticking toward the war’s bicentennial and amid controversial plans to raise the ship for display on Lake Erie’s southern shore near Buffalo, N.Y.

Thursday’s court hearing before U.S. District Judge Richard Arcara followed a state magistrate’s ruling in May that the wreck should be left preserved on the lake bottom — the position held by state legal and archeological officials.

But Northeast Research Ltd., the U.S. dive company that found the wreck in 60 metres water about 30 kilometres offshore of Dunkirk, N.Y., appealed the May ruling and asked Arcara to grant a full trial to determine the wreck’s future.

Northeast co-owner Pat Clyne, condemning the state’s policy of “in situ preservation” as equivalent to leaving wrecks “on the bottom to rot,” told Postmedia News if Arcara grants a trial his company could win the right to raise the wreck and create a major international War of 1812 tourist attraction.

“We were pleased with the judge’s questions as well as our attorney’s ability to explain why we believe that this historic ship should be raised, conserved and put on display for all to see — and not just for a handful of privileged few,” Clyne said.

“If the judge’s decision goes our way, we then get our chance to confront the State of New York in court with all of our evidence and extensive research to prove our case.”

Northeast’s lawyer defended the company’s dives to the wreck as respectful toward the historic artifacts and human remains known to be at the site.

While several relics were raised and preserved to help identify the ship, and a few bone fragments were inadvertently moved during a dive, Northeast contends its handling of the wreck has been thoroughly professional.

If the ship on the Erie lake bed is the Caledonia — a 26-metre, two-masted schooner with a richly documented history — it would be discovery of international importance.

Built in 1807 at a Royal Navy shipyard near present-day Windsor, Ont., the Caledonia was originally owned by the North West Company and used for hauling furs from trading posts around the Great Lakes.

It was pressed into military service when war broke out between Britain and the U.S. along the Canadian frontier in June 1812.

Just a month later, the ship carried some 400 troops — British and Canadian soldiers, conscripted fur traders and allied Indian fighters — to U.S.-controlled Michilimackinac Island at the western end of Lake Huron, a strategic prize close to the eastern entrance of Lake Michigan.

Without a shot being fired, the Americans surrendered the fort — an important event that dashed U.S. expectations of an easy triumph in the war, and largely solidified aboriginal support behind the British.

But the Caledonia fell into American hands just three months later.