By SKEETER TOWER
Special to the OBSERVER
What kid does not dream of finding a buried treasure? We have a buried treasure right off the Dunkirk shore. Where is the fanfare and jubilation that something quite wonderful, something authentic, something with historic significance has been discovered?
A sketch of the Caledonia, which is believed to be the ship submerged in Lake Erie, near Dunkirk.
Richard Kullberg found the treasure. He is majority owner of North East Research, LLC, a company designed to locate and salvage shipwrecks. With more than 40 years of underwater recovery in the Florida Keys, they came seeking the wreck of a British payroll ship sunk on Aug. 8, 1813 and said to be carrying $400 million in gold coins to pay the British troops. Today, this would translate to billions!
Kullberg is not a low-key kind of guy. When he returned to Dunkirk to pursue this discovery, he rolled into town in a Ferrari and a cigarette boat, armed with investment funds to get the job done.
He became known as "Cape Cod Rich" along our waterfront, referencing the connection to Kullberg's business endeavor in the early '80s when he started the first whale watch service out of Barnstable Harbor on Cape Cod. It was a "no-brainer" for Kullberg, a Massachusetts native, who knew that for 35,000 years whales had come to this area to gorge on the krill released with the 11-foot tides.
Kullberg, a 1977 graduate of Harvard Business School, describes his business philosophy as "Shots on goal," (hockey terminology) which, quoting Wayne Gretzky, says: "You miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take," and, "A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be."
The discovery was first made in 1994. Kullberg returned in 2004 with his professional crew to film the shipwreck, having already secured salvage rights through the courts based on coordinates to the ship's location. What emerged in video in the murky depths of Lake Erie was an amazingly intact two-masted schooner sitting upright, with remnants of its cargo of wheat, barley and hickory nuts.
Now, that may not sound as interesting as a payroll ship, except for the immense historic value of the vessel which has captured the imagination of this adventurer and salvor, and many others, including archeologists and history buffs. It is this historic treasure that Kullberg now seeks to introduce to the world and a passion which has kept his "shots on goal" right here in Dunkirk for the past eight years. Kullberg believes, after years of research and a close to $2 million investment, that this mystery ship sitting preserved in the 37-degree water, 170 feet below the surface of Lake Erie, has a fascinating story to tell. He has come to believe that it is the Caledonia.
The schooner, Caledonia, was built in 1797 near Windsor, Ontario, to ply the Great Lakes during the height of the fur trades. When the War of 1812 was proclaimed in June 1812, the British commandeered the ship, armed it and with a crew of British and Canadian soldiers won an important victory on Lake Michigan. In 1813, while the Caledonia was anchored at Ft. Erie, Americans surprised the sleeping crew and captured the ship for the American navy, bringing it to Black Rock across the Niagara River. It was on this ship that Captain Perry won the Battle of Lake Erie, then invaded southern Canada and retook Detroit. With the end of the war and the Treaty of Ghent, the Caledonia sailed to Lake Michigan and reestablished Ft. Dearborn, which is now Chicago.
That was not the end of her magnificent story. After the war she was rededicated to commerce by new Pennsylvania owners, Rufus Reed and John Dickson, who named her the General Wayne. The last reference to the General Wayne was 1818. Kullberg speculates that Reed, an abolitionist, might have used this ship to transport American slaves to freedom in Canada. That might explain why the vessel off Dunkirk carries no obvious insignia or identifying markings, for if discovered in this effort there would have been severe consequences for the owners. An 1834 coin aboard the ship indicates that the ship was still in service at least until this year. Kullberg has obtained an assignment of ownership and claim of title from Hannah Reed Mays, a direct descendent of Rufus Reed, as part of his claim.
Kullberg wants to lift the 85-foot. schooner on live TV, video the entire rescue process, move it carefully to the Buffalo waterfront, ensconce it in a huge cement and Plexiglas water-filled, window display case so visitors can view this authentic piece of American history. This is authentic artifact, not just a symbol of our nation's history.
Very few would ever see the wreck while sitting on the floor of Lake Erie. He expects it to become a destination point for history buffs from around the world. Seven million visitors have paid to see the Mary Rose, raised in waters off Portsmouth, England, in 1983. In this anniversary year of the sinking of the Titanic, it is not difficult to imagine the vast interest that people have in sunken boats and their stories. Plus, this is the bicentennial of the War of 1812 and the Caledonia was prominent in Perry's naval victories on Lake Erie which changed the course of American history. This sunken boat is the "missing icon of Buffalo," says a Buffalo official referencing the schooner on the seal of the city of Buffalo and the importance of the trading ships on the Great Lakes before the existence of major highways. Decades of important local history is tied up in this ship, if indeed, she is the Caledonia.
New York state immediately recognized the importance of the discovery and legal battles over salvage rights and preservation strategies commenced. New York claims recovery would violate the state's "in site preservation" policy of leaving ships where found. North East Research had begun excavation and more than 100 artifacts had been recovered from the ship. Human remains were also found and North East was accused of "desecration of human remains." Some artifacts indicate women were on board. Salvage rights were revoked in 2008 by New York and federal courts ruled the schooner belongs to the state of New York. In 2009, the wreck was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Who would ever know, sitting at the bottom on the lake!
North East Research has appealed the case to the US Circuit Court of Appeals.
"We are not looters or treasure hunters. We are professional salvers. The ship itself is a treasure. We want to do everything we can to preserve it," says Pat Cline, part owner of North East. "The last thing we're going to do in a shipwreck of this historic magnitude is to destroy the integrity of the ship."
North East claims most damage comes from "unauthorized intruders," non-professional, recreational divers who disturbed the site, plus the inability of law enforcement agencies to protect the wreck from looters. Zebra mussels also have discovered the wreck and cover the exterior. Kullberg and company have invested more than $1.8 million in their early stages of excavation with teams of technical divers, work boats, equipment, consultants and lawyers and are not about to give up on their goal.
North East suggests a private/government compromise to bring the Caledonia out of the depths to a place where she can be both viewed, honored and preserved. New York has no money to resurrect or protect the ship. North East Research would bring the ship up at their own cost, estimated at $7.5 million.
"It's feasible - could be a way of preserving the vessel Certainly would be impressive," said Pat Labadie, historian for Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Michigan.
Lessons have been learned from earlier salvaged wrecks which have been brought onto land only to disintegrate over time.
Kullberg intends to partner with Buffalo Industrial Dive Co. to lift and move it gently to its new and visible underwater home on Buffalo's waterfront. Artifacts would be given to Buffalo for a 99-year lease for $1. North East would ask for one third of the museum entry fees. National Geographic and other publications are interested in documentation of the process of recovery. Legal battles continue.
Now that OBSERVER readers have been groomed to write officials to save NRG, perhaps these skills could be directed toward raising the Caledonia and bringing an exciting new endeavor to Western New York with both tourist value and historic relevance. It is, after all, being referred to as "the Dunkirk schooner" in archeological journals. We all have a vested interest.
In the meantime, Kullberg takes other "shots on goal" in our region. In 2006, he submitted a patent for a chip in cell phones that would prohibit testing in an automobile or in designated areas such as classrooms. This he submitted first to SUNY Fredonia Technology Incubator, but they rejected the idea. He and several partners have since set up the Thruway Driving Range off Route 60 near the toll booths to service the many golfers in the area without such a skill building, practice facility nearby. Already they have received strong interest for the space from major hotel and commercial enterprises who value the high visibility.
Shots on goal: that's the Kullberg philosophy.
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