A 19th century schooner that lies at the bottom of Lake Erie belongs to New York state, not the salvagers who found it and want to raise and preserve it as a tourist attraction, a federal judge ruled.
The Abandoned Shipwrecks Act of 1987 gives ownership of vessels embedded in submerged state property to the state, U.S. District Judge Richard Arcara wrote in a decision that could derail the ambitious preservation plans.
Massachusetts-based Northeast Research LLC, which claimed title to the 80-foot wooden ship under maritime law before the state intervened, believes the vessel had a role in the War of 1812 and the Underground Railroad.
The group will appeal Arcara's ruling to a higher court, attorney Peter Hess said Wednesday. He said the case should have gone to trial.
"Northeast Research has spent over $1 million and five years ... identifying and documenting (the ship)," Hess said. "The state of New York has done absolutely nothing."
The company, which operates in Dunkirk, west of Buffalo, envisions raising the well-preserved, two-masted schooner and displaying it in an ice-cold freshwater aquarium on Buffalo's waterfront. Divers have already recovered and documented artifacts, including American and Spanish coins, buttons, rings and other jewelry, that would be part of the display.
The state's general policy is to leave shipwrecks alone.
Arcara ruled the ship was clearly abandoned, since it sat for more than 150 years after it went down in 170 feet of freshwater off the western New York shore.
"What matters is not whether the schooner would have been located, but rather whether anyone even tried looking for it," the judge wrote in a decision dated last week.
The ship's identity is part of the dispute.
A state-hired expert said the presence of grain and hickory nuts in the cargo hold meant the vessel was likely "a nameless 1830s schooner that sank carrying grain," Arcara's ruling said.
Northeast divers believe the schooner is the historically important Caledonia, used in the fur trade in the early 1800s before being commandeered by the British military at the outbreak of the War of 1812 and then captured by the Americans a year later.
After the war, the Caledonia was sold to Pennsylvania merchants who renamed it the General Wayne and used it to ferry runaway slaves across Lake Erie to Canada, according to Northeast's court filings. It is believed to have sunk, fully intact, during a storm in the 1830s. There were no known survivors.
"It's somewhat perverse that the state ... would be fighting an effort by a privately funded entity to document and preserve New York history," Hess said.
He argued against claims the schooner was abandoned, saying Northeast found an heir to one of the General Wayne's owners, who assigned her rights to the ship to Northeast.
During a September court hearing, Assistant Attorney General David State said New York views the shipwreck as a cultural and historic asset and that its primary goal is to preserve and protect it.
The state suspended Northeast's permit to explore the ship in 2008, he said, after determining divers had mishandled human remains. Northeast, which first laid claim to the vessel in 2004, denies the allegation.
The state also said experts doubt the shipwreck group can pull off its plans to raise the schooner from its more than 175-year-old resting place without having it deteriorate.