Sunday, March 06, 2005


Sunken schooners at risk in fight over 1812 relics


Globe and Mail
March 05, 2005

USS Hamilton photo mosaic.

Two well-preserved U.S. warships lying at the bottom of Lake Ontario are at the mercy of looters, ravaging mussels and natural degeneration as the federal government, the City of Hamilton and private organizations wrangle over what to do with them.

The wooden War of 1812-era hulks, lying 500 metres apart and nearly 90 metres below the surface in near-freezing waters, contain the skulls and bones of dozens of American sailors.

U.S. officials now rue the U.S. Navy's decision to give up control of the vessels a quarter-century ago. Debate is raging over whether they should be better protected, or raised and put on display, beyond the reach of scuba-diving treasure hunters.

"The opportunity to study them is slipping away," said Elaine Wyatt, president of the private group Save Ontario Shipwrecks. "They are at risk of being plundered by treasure-seekers, and [from] their natural environment."

Questions are also being raised about the motives and capabilities of Hamilton's municipal government.

It has not fulfilled a 25-year-old promise to carry out research on the wrecked ships. But it is considering a "business/tourism" scheme to relocate them to shallow water as a destination for sport divers and glass-bottom tour boats.

The vessels' fate is considered so touchy that Robert Grenier, chief of underwater archeology at Parks Canada and the senior Ottawa official dealing with the issue, has been barred by his superiors from speaking publicly about it.

"This file is ... very politically sensitive," said Mr. Grenier, who is also president of UNESCO's international scientific committee on underwater cultural heritage.

Fifty-three Americans died in the summer of 1813 when a sudden storm overwhelmed the USS Scourge and USS Hamilton as they lay becalmed about 10 kilometres offshore in Upper Canadian waters.

The 60-foot Scourge, originally dubbed the Lord Nelson, was built in Upper Canada for a merchant named James Crooks. But it was confiscated for alleged smuggling by the U.S. Navy and refitted with cannons, making it dangerously top-heavy.

It took part in an attack on York (now Toronto) in which part of the town was burned.

The 75-foot Hamilton, originally the Diana, was a U.S.-built merchant schooner pressed into service as a war vessel.
The ships lay on the lake bottom for well over a century before being located in 1973 by Dan Nelson, a St. Catharines dentist.

Dr. Nelson is now fuming about their situation. He thinks they should be raised as soon as possible and stored in refrigerated aquariums.

"Leaving them at the bottom is not an option," he said. "Eventually there will be nothing left."

The upsurge of interest in the Scourge and Hamilton has been sparked by evidence that unauthorized divers have visited their underwater grave.

Canada has designated the area as a national historic site and it is on a list of potential UNESCO world heritage sites in Canada.

Photos showing divers at the prow of the USS Hamilton have been made available to The Globe and Mail. Ian Kerr-Wilson, the Hamilton city official in charge of the site, acknowledged that incursions by divers could take place within months.

The municipality has installed a radar system to detect intruders. But Ms. Wyatt said it could be eluded by divers using sophisticated breathing apparatus who could then loot precious artifacts such as weapons, or disturb human remains.

"They were given to Hamilton on the promise that full archeological studies would be carried out," she said. "That hasn't been done and it doesn't look like it's about to happen.

"It's time to recognize that the USS Hamilton and the USS Scourge are not a municipal project."

Dr. Nelson collaborated with the Royal Ontario Museum in his hunt for the vessels. Remarkably, the ROM was able to persuade the U.S. Navy to sign over formal title to the hulks in 1979. In return, the ROM agreed to do studies to determine if the wrecks could be raised and displayed, and to hand over any human remains recovered from them to the United States.

A few months later the ROM decided to shed responsibility for the vessels. In stepped local Hamilton politicians who saw an opportunity to generate attention and possibly tourist revenue. The ROM turned over its title to Hamilton — along with responsibility for doing the studies.

A few years later, underwater adventurer Jacques Cousteau used a submersible to photograph and film the wrecks. National Geographic magazine launched a remotely controlled expedition in the early 1980s, using a piloted vehicle to take pictures.

The resulting publicity led John Lehman, U.S. navy secretary at the time, to offer to help raise the vessels in exchange for the return of the USS Hamilton and its artifacts to the United States.

The City of Hamilton said thanks but no thanks. And today, with the vessels still submerged, Mr. Lehman says it's unfortunate the city didn't take him up on the offer.

It is highly unlikely that Washington would agree to such a transfer today, said Robert Neyland, head of underwater archeology for the U.S. Navy. "We would hope there is no disturbance of the [human] remains," he said.

Another former navy secretary, William Middendorf, lamented the vessels' current situation and wondered aloud whether the salvage offer could be put back on the table.

The war's 200th anniversary is only a few years away, he noted. "What a marvellous bicentennial project. I can't think of anything more interesting."

Mr. Kerr-Wilson, the municipal official who co-ordinates the city's Hamilton-Scourge Project and is also a museum curator, said he would be "very interested in looking at partners" for a deal on the ships' future.

That may be because Hamilton does not have the money to go it alone. Six years ago, former federal heritage minister Sheila Copps said her department would provide $1.3-million if Hamilton matched that amount. The city has not come up with the money.

Mr. Kerr-Wilson said he is well aware of the ships' importance.

"It's hard to overstate their value," he said. "It's very rare [anywhere in the world] to have intact, undisturbed wooden boats. These are time machines sitting at the bottom of the lake."

Raising the ships would not be cheap. "Any time you go down that road you're looking at a very long commitment and tens of millions of dollars to carry it through to a successful conclusion," said Mr. Neyland, the navy archeologist.
He directed the raising in 2000 of the Confederate submarine H..L. Hunley, which sank in 1864 after being the first submarine to sink an enemy ship in combat.

Mr. Kerr-Wilson advocates a go-slow policy. "This is an incredibly delicate and important activity and we get one shot," he said. "If we mess this up there is no going back."

But Dr. Nelson says the Scourge and Hamilton will never be studied adequately as long as they remain on the lake bottom.

"They cannot be examined properly in 88 metres of water," he said. "It's too dangerous, too expensive and you won't get the right results."


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