By Maki Becker
BUFFALO, NY — For as long as 175 years, a shipwrecked schooner that had once sailed the Great Lakes, bringing grain and other goods to and from a just-burgeoning Buffalo, has laid virtually unscathed at the bottom of Lake Erie just west of Dunkirk.
A group of shipwreck hunters who have been diving on the downed ship over the last several years have a novel and exciting plan for the 85-foot vessel: They want to raise it from its watery grave and put it on display in a giant water tank in a museum in the Buffalo harbor.
“We have the birth of the city of Buffalo right there, sitting in the middle of Lake Erie in pristine condition,” said Pat Clyne, a videographer who specializes in filming shipwrecks and is a member of North East Research, the group that wants to lift the schooner out of the lake.
Even more tantalizing, Clyne said that recent research has led some to believe that the ship may actually be the Caledonia, a British-made vessel captured by U. S. forces during the War of 1812 and used against the British in the Battle of Lake Erie. The Caledonia was then sold as a merchant ship.
“It is so chock full of history,” Clyne said.
North East Research employees met with local officials this week to explain their plan and to begin talks about trying to get financial assistance for raising the ship and preserving it.
The schooner’s existence was first detected in the early 1990s by shipwreck salvagers using sonar in Lake Erie where some believe there are as many as 3,000 sunken ships underwater.
Richard Kullberg, owner and founder of North East Research, bought the coordinates to the location, giving him the right to salvage it. He began investigating what would turn out to be the location of the schooner, first believing it could be the remains of a payroll ship that had sunk during the Civil War.
He sent down a remote control camera to scan along side the ship and discovered it was indeed an old, wooden ship. He then sent down some technical divers who took more photos. They showed that while the vessel wasn’t the payroll ship, it was “very, very valuable in a historic way,” Clyne explained.
The discovery was kept under wraps as Kullberg raised money for more dives. In 2000, divers retrieved a compass and a lantern from the ship.
Subsequent dives turned up wheat and barley in the hulls, as well as coins, including a British coin from 1797 and an American coin dated 1834. The 1834 coin has led researchers to believe the schooner sank shortly after that date.
The ship is in remarkably good shape, Clyne said, save for the zebra mussels crusted over much of the vessel, making the possibility of raising it from the lake very real.
North East Research’s grand plan includes using Buffalo Industrial Diving Co., an underwater engineering company. “What we’re going to do is strap, literally, a diaper around it and slowly raise it to the surface,” Clyne said.
The ship would be held in one of the old molasses tanks on the waterfront while it is restored. Then, it would be placed inside a massive acrylic tank, along the lines of those used in the famed Atlantis Hotel in the Bahamas to display sea creatures.
Clyne believes the ship display could be the centerpiece of a maritime museum in the Buffalo harbor that would attract thousands of tourists every year. He likened it to the Vasa, a 17th century ship on display in Stockholm, and the Mary Rose, a 16th century vessel in Portsmouth, England— both popular tourist destinations.
“There is no reason in the world why North America can’t do the same thing and have the same success as Europe,” Clyne said. “We want this to be world class. If we’re going to do this, let’s do it right.”
Tuesday, North East Research met in Buffalo with local leaders, including County Executive Chris Collins; John Montague, director of the Buffalo State College Maritime Center; representatives of local members of Congress and both U. S. senators, the Erie County Canal Harbor Development Committee and tourism officials.
Grant Loomis, a Collins spokesman, said the county executive takes the salvagers seriously but acknowledges the significant financial hurdles that need to be overcome.
“The county executive is very excited about the possibility of raising the historic schooner and turning this underwater treasure into a first-rate destination on Buffalo’s waterfront,” Loomis said.
“To be successful, this project needs broad-based support and financial commitments from various levels of government. The county executive looks forward to continuing to discuss the possibilities of this project with his colleagues in government and North East Research.”
Montague, who has been involved in the research of the schooner, said there’s no doubt there’s historic value to the shipwrecked vessel. “It is spectacular, and if it’s the Caledonia, even more so,” he said. “It would be a wonderful thing to have.”
Judging by the shape, design and woodwork, Montague said it’s clear the ship “was old when it went down.”
Fresh water and frigid temperatures appear to have helped preserve the vessel, as they have for other intact ships that have been found in the Great Lakes, including two off St. Catharines, Ont., and a Revolutionary War ship also in Lake Ontario between Rochester and Syracuse.
Montague said there’s no conclusive evidence yet that the ship is the Caledonia, but that it’s certainly possible. “There’s no name plates when they found it, so this is speculation,” he said.
Montague said the plan to raise and “pickle” the ship is a “feasible thing to do,” but cautioned that it would be an extremely complicated and expensive project.
Other ships that have been raised have met with disaster, he said. A famous example was the Alvin Clark, a wood schooner raised in 1968 off the coast of Wisconsin and put on display at a museum in Green Bay. “The museum ran out of funds, and eventually the boat rotted,” Montague said.
Many archaeologists and maritime experts are against raising boats, believing they should be studied and documented in their final resting places. A cheaper alternative to raising the ship, Montague suggested, would be to do detailed studies of the sunken schooner and then replicate it and have that ship serve as a museum.
But, Montague said, “I’m not a naysayer. We just have to careful how we do this and make sure we do this right.”