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The brig Caledonia
The USS Caledonia: Could it really be?
Author: David Frew
For several years, rumors of a War of 1812 shipwreck lying in mid lake between Dunkirk, New York and the tip of Long Point have been circulating around Lake Erie. Stories of this exciting discovery have found their way to me from a variety of sources. Ian Bell called a few summers ago to mention that divers from New York State had been in the Port Dover Harbour Museum asking if he knew anything about the Caledonia which was one of the American ships from the September 1813 “Battle of Lake Erie.” While they were in the museum, the divers were also interested in learning about the work that Mike Fletcher had done on the Steamer Atlantic.
Perry’s Lake Erie fleet included ten warships but one of them, the Ohio, was being used as a supply vessel at the time of the actual battle. The two primary fighting vessels were the brigs Niagara and Lawrence which were each rated at 480-tons and carried 136 crewmembers. Those two brigs, along with four smaller ships, were constructed at Erie in early 1813 in anticipation of the naval conflict which was destined to take place on Lake Erie. The rest of Perry’s rag-tag fleet consisted of ships (including the Ohio) that had been moved to Erie from Black Rock, New York. At the beginning of the battle, Perry was aboard his flagship, the Lawrence which had been named after his friend and naval hero, Captain James Lawrence. The rest of Perry’s fleet (in addition to Lawrence and Niagara) consisted of five schooners, one sloop and an additional brig. Two of the schooners, Scorpion and Ariel, were rated at approximately 35-tons. The other schooners, Somers, Porcupine and Tigress, were much larger at 94, 83 and 82 tons respectively. The Trippe was a 60-ton sloop.
The ninth ship in Perry’s fleet, the Caledonia, was a 180-ton brig which had originally been a British merchant ship owned by the Canadian Northwest Company. Caledonia was built in 1807 at Malden (near today’s Amhurstburg, Ontario) where she was designed for the Georgian Bay fur trade. The Caledonia was commandeered for the war in 1812 and equipped with two 24-pound long guns and a single 32 pound carronade. In October 1812, the HMS Caledonia was captured by Americans near Fort Erie, moved to Black Rock (Buffalo) and renamed USS Caledonia.
The Caledonia played an important role in the Battle of Lake Erie. Making the best use of her two long guns, her captain positioned the ship almost a half mile from the main skirmish and continued to pound away at the British ships as the battle ensued. When the battle was over, Perry returned to Erie with his ten-ship fleet, plus several captured British ships, and set up his Naval Base operations in Misery Bay. Many of the individual ships, in particular the Lawrence, were so badly damaged that observers wondered why he had bothered to bring them back. Perry, himself, was sent to the Atlantic Theater later that year where his naval career continued to flourish, but his bedraggled Misery Bay fleet continued to deteriorate in Erie.

The Brig Caledonia
There were two questionable sorties during the following summer of 1814, including the Burning of Dover Mills (predecessor of today’s Port Dover) and the embarrassing loss of two ships in Lake Huron. The USS Caledonia participated in both battles. By the winter of 1815, however, it was apparent that the Erie Naval Base and its fleet had outlived its usefulness. With the war settled, the United States Navy closed its Erie base and Daniel Dobbins, local architect of Erie’s fleet, purchased the remaining ships which were generally regarded by the U.S. Navy as junk. To recoup his expenditure, Dobbins decided to sell as many of the boats as he could. The built-in-Erie vessels (Brigs Niagara and Lawrence, pilot boat Ariel, and gunboats Porcupine, Tigress, and Scorpion) were so badly constructed that they were of little or no commercial value. In the rush to build the fleet, Dobbins had used green (non-seasoned) wood, inferior softwood species (including Sassafras and Elm), and wooden pins in place of nails. It was difficult to get proper shipbuilding supplies to Erie, and the urgency of the impending war replaced traditional shipbuilding practices. As a result, the bulk of the Misery Bay fleet was in a deplorable condition. For Dobbins, the most likely candidate for re-sale as a merchant vessel was the Caledonia.

Rendering of Erie’s Harbor and Misery Bay Circa 1814
In 1815, Dobbins refitted Caledonia, returning it to its original configuration as a merchant vessel. Erie’s shipping business was booming and the refurbished Caledonia provided an easy and quick way for local merchants Rufus Reed and John Dickson to return to the salt and fur trade after the war. Caledonia was renamed General Anthony Wayne and placed into service. Rufus Reed passed his share of the ship to his son Charles in the 1820s. Charles Reed bought Dickson’s share when he moved from Erie to Meadville in 1929. By the mid-1830s, Charles Reed had reconfigured his shipping business toward steamships and abandoned the acquisition or repair of sailing ships. His 32-ship fleet, as of 1840, included seven sailing vessels, but the Caledonia/General Anthony Wayne was not listed among them. When one of his sailing schooners reached the end of its productive days, Reed would dismantle it and salvage the parts. Since Reed’s needs for ships far exceeded the rate at which he could build or acquire them, he often installed steam engines and boilers in the biggest and best of his sailing ships to try to extend their lives but he did not convert his venerable old General Wayne (Caledonia), which by that time was almost 40 years old. When Reed launched his flagship, Steamer Erie, in 1837, he announced that he was “through with sailing vessels.”
Official shipping records suggest that Reed’s General Wayne/Caledonia worked into the early 1830s and then disappeared. There are only three plausible explanations for its disappearance: (1) It may have sunk by accident, although such an event would have received news coverage, (2) It could have been sunk on propose, or (3) It may have been dismantled and salvaged. Since the news of the day was filled with reports of vessel traffic and a sinking was always headline stuff, it seems unlikely that Caledonia was lost at sea. As to the likelihood that it was scuttled offshore, that would have been unlike the thrifty Reeds who meticulously dismantled unneeded ships and stored the salvageable parts. It was also common for Reed to tie a boat up at his pier and not use if for a year or two when it had reached the end of its life. That would explain the uncertainty regarding the final year(s) of its use.
In 2004, a Massachusetts salvage group called Northeast Research announced the discovery of a two- masted schooner lying in 175-feet of water between Dunkirk, New York and Long Point. The schooner bears the look of a typical Pre-Civil War, Lake Erie working schooner, and its hold contained grain and hickory nuts, both typical schooner cargos during the early to mid 1800s. After several dives, the salvage group which was operating out of Dunkirk made an official claim to the wreck and produced artifacts that had been recovered. In their claim they argued that the wreck in question was in fact the Caledonia, and that it was of historical significance because it had been a part of the American fleet during the Battle of Lake Erie.

Two-masted schooner on the floor of Lake Erie
In observing the work of the Northeast Research Group, it would seem that they have been careful observers of Port Dover’s Mike Fletcher and the work that he did with the Steamer Atlantic. What may distinguish their project, however, is that they were not in competition with a rival salvage group (as Mike Fletcher was when he struggled with the Mar-Dive Group), and the fact that the wreck, if it is indeed Caledonia, is an American-owned ship lying in United States waters. The Northeast Group pitched a clever vision of the salvaged Caledonia preserved inside of a huge aquarium and preserved by immersion in cold water. Instead of approaching the town of Dunkirk, which would probably not have had the financial resources to mount such an endeavor, they took their idea to Buffalo (They may also have been reluctant to approach Dunkirk because of the work that the Mar Dive group had done in proposing that the Atlantic be raised and moved to the waterfront there). While raising “Caledonia” from Lake Erie and preserving it may have seemed more feasible than raising the Atlantic (it is smaller and less complex), the scope of the project was characterized by archeologists as overwhelming.
The fact that the Northeast Group visited the Port Dover Harbour Museum to learn more about Mike Fletcher’s work with the Atlantic, and to see the recovered artifacts that Mike had given to the museum suggests that the Massachusetts salvage divers were trying to learn from the Atlantic case. When they argued their case before a state magistrate, the dive group was chastised for removing artifacts and for the possible mishandling of human remains. Even though the Northeast Group produced a letter from one of the “owners” of the General Anthony Wayne (a surviving member of the Reed family) stating that they had permission to salvage the ship, the court concluded that the shipwreck was the properly of the State of New York, and should not be disturbed. The permission step is reminiscent of the strategy that Mike Fletcher’s adversaries, the Mar Dive Group used to argue that they owned the Atlantic. The court also noted that the salvers had not really established that the wreck in question was, indeed, the Caledonia/General Anthony Wayne, and therefore had no particular historical significance. Several “experts” testified that the shipwreck seemed more likely to be an 1840s-era vessel than an early 1800s design.
The magisterial decision was appealed to a federal court. In the appeal, the salvers argued that even if the ship was not the original Caledonia, it was likely to have been involved in transporting slaves to safety during the years before the Civil War. Thus even if it was an 1840s-era design, it might still be of great historical significance. In August 2010, Judge Leslie Foschio upheld the earlier state ruling that the ship belonged to New York State and that it should remain where it was, on the bottom of Lake Erie. He ruled that the salvers had inappropriately removed artifacts, damaged the ship during early dives, and mishandled possible human remains that were reported to have been aboard. Judge Foschio also noted that the objective of raising the ship and then preserving it was misguided and unrealistic, and that such efforts would be more likely to do harm than good to the wreck.
In sorting through the apparent facts regarding the unknown two-masted shipwreck in Lake Erie, one more bit of evidence should be noted. In 1934, noted Canadian historian George Cuthbertson, published an article about Caledonia in the Canadian historical journal, “Beaver.” In his research, Cuthbertson used primary data obtained from the business records of Charles Reed’s Erie shipping company chronicle the end days of the Caledonia/General Anthony Wayne. Cuthbertson noted that the Reeds dismantled the old ship after it had outlived its usefulness, become too expensive to repair, and proved structurally unable to tolerate the addition of a steam engine. According to the Reed Company records, the salvaged parts of Caledonia’s hull and rigging were sold for firewood and scrap iron.
Apparently, the one step that the Northeast Research Group had failed to replicate from Mike Fletcher’s work with the Steamer Atlantic, was the most important one: verifying the identity of the shipwreck. Even as a young and relatively inexperienced major project salver, Mike Fletcher (who had plenty of underwater diving experience at the time) recognized the importance of making a positive identification of the vessel that he was surveying. To that end, he spent years doing library research and scouring newspaper accounts of the wreck of the Atlantic before finally concluding, based upon careful inspection of the individual components of the shipwreck, that he had indeed found the Atlantic. Before he was satisfied that he had actually located the Steamer Atlantic he positively identified the ship’s bell, telegraph and distinct decorative structural piece from the roof of the octagonal wheelhouse. The divers from Northeast Research should have emulated Mike’s meticulous approach to the Atlantic project.
While it seems clear that the wreck in question is not Caledonia, and that the notion of bringing up a mid 19th Century ship and preserving it in an aquarium for Buffalo tourists to visit was overly ambitious and misguided, the Northeaster Research Group’s project was not without merit. The story and controversy surrounding Northeast Research made people from around the Great Lakes revisit the rich history of the Battle of Lake Erie, the War of 1812, and the state of shipping that predated and postdated the war. The timing of the Caledonia story was especially interesting in light of the upcoming 200 year anniversary of the 1813 Battle of Lake Erie, and the story of the non-military brig would not have been so well told without their efforts.