Whatever its name, legacy or place in history, the 19th century schooner has a final resting spot – on the bottom of Lake Erie about 20 miles off the Dunkirk shoreline.
A nine-year legal battle over who owns the shipwreck – some believe it’s the War of 1812 battleship Caledonia – and whether it should be raised and restored or treated as a burial site and left right where it is appears to be over.
And the winners are the historic preservationists who argued that the two-masted ship belongs to the state and is best left as an archaeological site in the lake.
“It’s frustrating," said Richard Kullberg, owner of the company that located the shipwreck. “It’s an accident site, not a grave site.”
Kullberg fought nine years for ownership of the wooden schooner and the right to raise it and turn it into a tourist attraction on Buffalo’s waterfront.
He lost every step of the way, and this week’s decision by the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals upholding two lower court rulings may be his last legal option.
The appeals court ruled that the schooner was abandoned and therefore belongs to the state.
The state has argued from Day One that the ethics and wisdom of disturbing a burial site require that the ship, which it doesn’t believe is the Caledonia, remain where it is.
The wreck, known to many as the “Dunkirk Schooner,” sits in 170 feet of water in the eastern basin of Lake Erie where water temperatures remain about 37 degrees. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009.
“The depth of the freshwater covering the wreck and the cool temperature have combined to preserve the wooden vessel in relatively pristine condition,” the court’s three-member panel said in its ruling this week. Even now, nine years after beginning his fight, Kullberg thinks the state is wrongheaded.
“They’re taking a priceless artifact and letting it go to rot," he said of the state. “Let our children learn from it. Let archaeologists learn from it."
Kullberg isn’t giving up. He continues to lobby anyone with power or money as to the benefits of raising the schooner and the risks of leaving it under water, a favorite spot for zebra mussels to gather.
His company, Northeast Research LLC, was formed with the intention of going after Great Lakes shipwrecks and, in 2004, Kullberg laid claim to the Dunkirk Schooner.
The company proposed raising the ship from the lake and placing it on display in a giant water tank in Buffalo for thousands of tourists to see.
“I offered them a Disney opportunity, and they ignored it," Kullberg said of the state.
While the fate of the sunken schooner may now be decided, it’s true identity remains very much in doubt.
Kullberg’s company insists it was a trading schooner, based on the grain and hickory nuts it was carrying at the time it sank, and that there’s a strong likelihood it had been the warship Caledonia.
Taken over by the British during the War of 1812, the ship was later commandeered by Americans and used against the British in the Battle of Lake Erie.
History says the Caledonia was eventually converted to a trade ship called the General Wayne and may have become part of the underground railroad and used to smuggle slaves from the United States into Canada.
But is that the same ship that rests off the shoreline of Dunkirk?
“We know it’s the Caledonia," Kullberg said. “It can’t be any other ship, through process of elimination."
No nameplate was found on the ship, but Kullberg says the lack of identification is consistent with the theory that it was used to help escaped slaves.
The state has countered with experts of its own, many of them suggesting Kullberg’s assertions are off base.
Arthur B. Cohn, an underwater archaeologist with the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, said none of the artifacts found on the sunken ship suggest it was ever an historic vessel.
Cohn said the ship’s “flat-bottomed hull and parallel sides” also are more consistent with ships built to fit through the Welland Canal, which was completed well after the Caledonia was built.
Cohn also testified that it’s likely the ship, regardless of its name or history, was abandoned, one of the keys to the state succeeding in its ownership claims.
The courts found that under the Abandoned Shipwrecks Act, a federal law designed to preserve and protect historic shipwrecks, the Dunkirk Schooner belongs in the hands of the state.
The appeals court upheld the lower court rulings of U.S. Magistrate Judge Leslie G. Foschio and U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara.