Battle brews over War of 1812 ship
76-year-old edition of Canadian magazine may resolve legal fight
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.