Wrecked ship's historic bell comes back to light
Wednesday, August 23, 2006
Plain Dealer Reporter
The last time the bell aboard the Cortland was rung was 1868. A crewman was trying to warn an approaching ship that they were on a collision course. His efforts failed and 38 people perished off Lorain.
On Tuesday, drivers retrieved that lost bell in 60 feet of water, at the shipwreck site discovered just a year ago.
"The wow for me is that this bell figures into the collision," said Kevin Magee, standing in a wet suit by the crusty black iron bell, aboard a 30-foot boat. As Magee talked, another diver dipped towels in the lake and wrapped them around the bell.
"Once it hits air, it starts to rust," said Carrie Sowden, archaeological director of the Peachman Lake Erie Shipwreck Research Center in Vermilion and holder of the state permit to retrieve the bell. Retrieving artifacts from a shipwreck is a violation of state and federal laws without such a permit.
Considering that the bell has been sitting on the bottom of Lake Erie for nearly 140 years, the one-day operation went smoothly.
The bell was not attached to anything on the wreck, and after two descents, the divers brought the bell up in a specially designed bag. The bell weighs less than 100 pounds.
"We had all these contingency plans. Today couldn't have been better," Sowden said. The 173-foot, three-masted bark is one of the most coveted shipwrecks in Lake Erie. The Cortland was carrying iron ore when it collided with the passenger steamer Morning Star on a dark, drizzly night in the summer of 1868. The accident was news for weeks as bodies washed ashore. The wrecked Morning Star was eventually recovered.
Magee, David VanZandt and Jim Paskert, members of an informal dive team called Cleveland Underwater Explorers or CLUE, discovered the Cortland last summer, then went to Sowden to find out how to protect the site from bounty hunters and preserve it for divers.
Much of the midships section is missing, and they found no valuable artifacts except the bell and scrollhead from the bow of the boat. Although they did not find a name on the wreck, they are almost certain it is the Cortland based on research about the ship and the accident.
They decided bringing the bell up was better than leaving it in the water.
"Eventually it's going to be buried under the mud and no one will see it," VanZandt said. Plus, there was the worry of theft.
Sowden will clean the bell with chemicals and mechanical methods, then put it on display at the Inland Seas Maritime Museum next door to the research center. "It's in excellent condition," she said.
Although the clapper is still on the bell, she's not sure if they will be able to get it to ring again. But she can guarantee it will never end up on eBay or in a private home.
As for the shipwreck site, once the team completes its survey, they will announce the coordinates so other divers can visit it. As for discovering another shipwreck, Magee will only say, "We have a list."
It could be a long list, as the lake is full of sunken ships, possibly as many as 3,000, and only a fraction have been identified.
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