Shipwreck artifacts found in Lake Erie

Nautical history buffs will have a rare opportunity to examine artifacts from a ship that frequented the St. Clair River during the 1850s.

Sombra Museum has unveiled a display documenting the life of the barque New Brunswick, a 129-foot sailing vessel built in St. Catharines that holds an important distinction in Canadian shipbuilding history.

“While it was very typical of the tall ships that you’d see on the St. Clair in the 1850s, it was unique in that it was the first North American-made sailing vessel to take a load of wheat across to England and back,” said the museum’s Allan Anderson.

“Normally, wheat would ship to Quebec and then it would be the bigger European and English ships that would make the journey across the ocean.”

Originally constructed in the 1840s, the New Brunswick was owned by the Merritts of St. Catharines, relatives of William Hamilton Merritt, the man responsible for building the original Welland Canal.

The ship made its maiden voyage in May 1847, leaving Chicago hauling 18,000 bushels of wheat. The vessel sailed down the St. Clair River and cleared the Welland Canal before making the journey to Liverpool, England.

For over 10 years the New Brunswick sailed the St. Clair, making the jaunt across the Atlantic, reflective of the new breed of ships that existed in the Great Lakes at the time. But in the summer of 1858, the ship met an early end.

In August, a powerful storm hit Lake Erie while the New Brunswick was transporting square oak timbers to Tonawanda, NY. Gale winds ripped the ship apart, killing all five of its crew members. The ship sank in 40 feet of water, not far from Wheatley.

For years after its early demise, rumours abounded about the ship’s cargo, said Anderson. Many believed the ship’s cargo contained a sizeable quantity of black walnut hardwood, at the time an incredibly valuable commodity.

“Everybody thought that they’d get rich,” Anderson said. “But nobody knew how to salvage the ship and claim it.”

It wasn’t until 120 years after the New Brunswick sank to the bottom of Lake Erie that a man named Mike Dilts was able to use fairly sophisticated technology to pinpoint the wreckage and salvage material from the ship.

Unfortunately for Dilts, the stories of black walnut weren’t true. After salvaging the oak timbers and over 200 artifacts from the ship, he couldn’t find any of the valuable hardwood in the wreckage. Dilts gave some of the artifacts he found from the New Brunswick – such as shoes, pulleys and chains – to a friend in Sarnia, Marty Cole, who recently provided the materials to the museum.

Now members of the public can take a glimpse at some of the finds from the New Brunswick, a ship that holds a prominent place in the evolution of North American shipping.

“It’s just a great find,” said Anderson. “It’s really reflective of shipping in the Great Lakes in that period, it pertains to shipwrecks, improvements in shipbuilding and the history of the St. Clair River.”New Brunswick