Bat­tle brews over War of 1812 ship

76-year-old edi­tion of Cana­dian mag­a­zine may re­solve le­gal fight

Edmonton Journal - - WORLD - RANDY BOSWELL

A stun­ningly well-pre­served Lake Erie ship­wreck — pur­ported to be the Cana­dian-built brig Cale­do­nia from the War of 1812 — has prompted vi­sions of a world-class tourist at­trac­tion on the Buf­falo shore and sparked a le­gal bat­tle be­tween New York’s state govern­ment and a U.S. sal­vage com­pany that wants to raise the ves­sel.

But could a 76-year-old is­sue of The Beaver — the ven­er­a­ble Cana­dian his­tory mag­a­zine — scut­tle the con­tro­ver­sial dream?

A Buf­falo-based mar­itime her­itage cen­tre is point­ing to an ar­ti­cle pub­lished in the mag­a­zine’s De­cem­ber 1934 edi­tion to ques­tion the iden­tity of the sunken ship.

The ar­ti­cle, writ­ten by the renowned Great Lakes his­to­rian Ge­orge Cuth­bert­son, traces the ca­reers of sev­eral fur-trade ves­sels — in­clud­ing the 26-me­tre, two-masted Cale­do­nia — that were put to mil­i­tary use in the War of 1812 and later sold off to pri­vate own­ers.

Cuth­bert­son de­tails the Cale­do­nia’s re­mark­able role in the war, be­gin­ning with its sec­ond­ment from the North­west Com­pany in 1812 to ferry Bri­tish, Cana­dian and First Na­tions troops to 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, an Amer­i­can force sur­ren­dered the is­land’s fort — an im­por­tant event that dashed U.S. ex­pec­ta­tions of an easy tri­umph in the war and largely so­lid­i­fied abo­rig­i­nal sup­port be­hind the Bri­tish.

The Cale­do­nia later fell into Amer­i­can hands, then saw ac­tion in Septem­ber 1813 — as the re­named USS Cale­do­nia — in the Bat­tle of Lake Erie, a fa­mous Amer­i­can vic­tory in which much of the Royal Navy fleet on the Great Lakes was de­stroyed.

By 1815, Cuth­bert­son wrote in his 1934 ar­ti­cle, the con­flict had ended and the Cale­do­nia en­tered a new phase in its sto­ried life.

“Af­ter the war, she was sold to a firm of Amer­i­can shipown­ers, who re­named her the Gen­eral Wayne,” he stated in The Beaver (which was it­self re­named to Canada’s His­tory ear­lier this year.) “Her ca­reer ended at Erie, Pa., where she was dis­man­tled and sold for fire­wood and old iron.”

Such a fate for the famed ves­sel could only mean one thing: that the wreck now ly­ing at the bot­tom of Lake Erie — and at the cen­tre of both the Buf­falo tourism pro­posal and the court bat­tle be­tween New York state and the sal­vage firm North­east Re­search Ltd. — is not the Cale­do­nia.

In a re­cent edi­tion of its news­let­ter The Chart, the Buf­falo Mar­itime Cen­ter con­tends that Cuth­bert­son’s ar­ti­cle in The Beaver raises se­ri­ous doubts about the iden­tity of the con­tro­ver­sial ship­wreck.

BMC re­searcher Chris An­drle, who wrote about the is­sue for the cen­tre, con­cluded that the Cale­do­nia/ Gen­eral Wayne’s demise was prob­a­bly has­tened by the 1818 ar­rival on the lake of a wood-burn­ing steamer called Walk-In-The-Wa­ter, which had a “vo­ra­cious” ap­petite for fuel and sparked a spike in the value of fire­wood in Erie and other lakeshore towns.

The for­mer Cale­do­nia, An­drle con­cludes, was a likely vic­tim of mar­ket forces that sud­denly “made her more valu­able as fuel than as a ship.”

Pat Clyne, co-owner of the com­pany hop­ing to raise the Lake Erie wreck, told Canwest News Ser­vice that North­east Re­search has long been aware of Cuth­bert­son’s ref­er­ence to the Cale­do­nia’s sup­posed dis­man­tling in Penn­syl­va­nia.

“Nat­u­rally, that caused a lit­tle bit of con­cern” at first, said Clyne, who is pre­par­ing to file le­gal ar­gu­ments this week chal­leng­ing New York State’s bid to block the rais­ing of the wreck.

But he told Canwest News Ser­vice that a thor­ough search of ship records from the early 19th cen­tury turned up no ev­i­dence to sup­port Cuth­bert­son’s as­ser­tion in the 1934 ar­ti­cle that Cale­do­nia/ Gen­eral Wayne was bro­ken up for fire­wood.

“We never found any­thing to sub­stan­ti­ate it,” he said, adding that North­east’s archival searches sug- gest the Gen­eral Wayne was used long af­ter 1818 as a cargo car­rier and pos­si­ble ferry for Amer­i­can slaves es­cap­ing across Lake Erie to free­dom in Canada.

The iden­tity of the ship­wreck is key to the ques­tion of own­er­ship and — nat­u­rally — the pro­posal to lift it from the lake to be­come a tourist at­trac­tion.

North­east Re­search has se­cured per­mis­sion from de­scen­dants of the last known owner of the Gen­eral Wayne to carry out the mul­timil­liondol­lar project, which has also won se­ri­ous in­ter­est from top of­fi­cials in Erie County — the Buf­falo-area mu­nic­i­pal­ity where the raised wreck would be dis­played.

But in their court fil­ings, New York her­itage of­fi­cials have expressed doubts about North­east’s iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the sunken ship as the Cale­do­nia/Gen­eral Wayne.

And the state has a much stronger case for main­tain­ing con­trol over a wreck site when the ship in ques­tion has an un­known prove­nance.

In May, a New York mag­is­trate ac­cepted claims by state arche­ol­o­gists that North­east divers had dis­turbed the wreck site — in­clud­ing hu­man re­mains found in the sub­merged ves­sel — and should be barred from rais­ing the ship.

That rul­ing is sub­ject to an­other round of hear­ings this sum­mer.

But Clyne called the state’s claims “ab­surd” and blamed recre­ational divers with no links to North­east for re­cent van­dal­ism at the wreck site.

And he in­sisted that rais­ing the “truly his­tor­i­cal ship” from Erie’s depths would be the per­fect way for both Canada and the U.S. — each nation with a share of Cale­do­nia’s rich his­tory — to mark the War of 1812’s up­com­ing bi­cen­ten­nial.


A Lake Erie ship­wreck pur­ported to be from the War of 1812 has prompted vi­sions of a world-class tourist at­trac­tion on the Buf­falo, N.Y., shore.

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