Monday, December 20, 2004


Shipwreck hunters worry about preserving history


Duluth News Tribune
By Chuck Frederick
December 19, 2004

The search team was still out on Lake Superior this fall when elation over finding a legendary shipwreck gave way to a sobering realization and then to a vow.

Team members decided to do what was necessary to protect the wreck of the Benjamin Noble, a freighter that sank in a wintery gale in 1914. Its 20-member crew died in the disaster.

"We look for shipwrecks kind of for fun, and we do it for the history. But we also respect these sites. And the Noble, it's a grave site. It's different from all the other wrecks we've found in that regard," said diver Randy Beebe of Duluth. "We want to make sure the Noble, and all wrecks, are preserved."

The fear is that unscrupulous or opportunistic divers will visit the Noble, salvage artifacts for profit and destroy history.

Beebe and the rest of the four-man search team have exchanged e-mails and have begun to discuss what they should do to prevent that from happening.

They probably don't have to do much of anything, according to historical and archaeological experts. Federal and state laws already protect shipwrecks. The men don't even have to divulge the locations of the wrecks.

"These guys are working hard to make sure these are preserved. We appreciate that," said Keith Meverden, an underwater archaeologist for the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison. "They're preserving history."

The Abandoned Shipwrecks Act was created by the federal government in the early 1980s. It gives ownership of shipwrecks to the states where they're located. Abandoned property laws, on the books in both Minnesota and Wisconsin, give states additional authority.

In Minnesota, looting a wreck site is a potential gross misdemeanor crime, said Scott Anfinson, the National Register Archaeologist for the State Historic Preservation Office in St. Paul.

Stealing from a shipwreck in Wisconsin can result in the confiscation of boating equipment and other equipment. Criminal charges can be as severe as felonies, Meverden said.

Arresting looters for stealing bells, whistles and even dishes from wrecks doesn't happen often, Anfinson and Meverden agreed. More common is ship owners, cargo owners, insurance companies and others claiming ownership of wrecks through the courts or successfully petitioning for salvage rights.

Listing or nominating a wreck to the National Register of Historic Places can help protect it from personal claims, Anfinson said.

Preparing a nomination for the National Register can cost $5,000 to $10,000. About 10 Minnesota wrecks were placed on the National Register during the 1990s, using some of $250,000 in lottery proceeds. State money isn't available any longer, Anfinson said.

The Benjamin Noble would be eligible for the National Register, Anfinson says. It's an important piece of Great Lakes shipping history, and its wreck site hasn't been disturbed.

Search team members are considering making a claim for salvage rights. If successful, they could donate the rights to a nonprofit like the Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society. They're also discussing the possibility of raising money to have the Noble nominated to the National Register.

"What do you want to gamble on?" asked team member Ken Merryman of Fridley, Minn. "I think we all want the same thing. We all want it to be preserved. The question is, how do you do that over the long haul?"

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