Digest>Archives> May 2005

Feds sue over recovered lightship artifacts

By Timothy Harrison


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The Lightship Sailors Memorial in Coast Guard ...
Photo by: Jerry Radloff

Federal prosecutors recently filed a suit in federal court against the divers who recovered artifacts of the Lightship Nantucket that was hit and sunk by the RMS Olympic in 1934 about 50 miles southeast of Nantucket.

There was lots of publicity in September of last year when Capt. Eric J. Takakjian of Quest Marine Services in Fairhaven, Massachusetts raised the gigantic fog bell from the Nantucket. Previous recovery missions brought to the surface the ships’ helms, portholes, telegraph, signal light and binnacle. All this was the result of a six-year effort that was fairly well known

and publicized.

Planning to restore the found artifacts, Capt. Takakjian said at that time, “The recovery and subsequent preservation, restoration and public display of the Lightship 117 artifacts at museums will provide immeasurable benefits to the maritime community as a whole by allowing the story to be told.”

In fact, Captain Takakjian had restored some of the artifacts and a small exhibit went on display in March of last year at the Boston Sea Rovers 50th annual underwater clinic in Boston at the Copley Plaza Hotel and was viewed by many people.

Last year, Takakjian told the American Lighthouse Foundation he was planning to assemble a traveling exhibit that would tell the story of the Nantucket Lightship Station with focus on the Lightship 117 and her loss. The exhibit would tour maritime museums on the east coast spending five to six months at each location. The exhibit would include historical photographs of all the ships that served on the Nantucket station as well as underwater photographs of the wreck site. A continuously running video clip of the wreck site would complement the underwater photographs. Included in the exhibit would be a number of the restored artifacts recovered as well as the 1,000-pound fog bell. It was thought that the American Lighthouse Foundation’s Museum of Lighthouse History would be one of the museums where the artifacts would go on display.

However, Captain Takakjian could not have imagined the furor and legal action that would soon develop that casted a shadow over the years of dedicated work to restore and the save the artifacts.

Marty Krzywicki, president of the Lightship Sailors Association, said of the dive team, “What they did was illegal. They went down on a grave ship.” In fact, the organization fired its volunteer historian for being involved with the dive team.

In one of the newspaper accounts, an unnamed Justice Department maritime lawyer was quoted, “Personal ambitions led them to run roughshod over the requirements of the National Historic Preservation Act.”

On the other hand, Peter Hess, a lawyer for the dive team was quoted as saying, “They’re being threatened with felony prosecution when they should be writing them checks for having done this work.”

The lighthouse community was unevenly divided on the question with a few saying the dive team should have left the artifacts untouched. However, the vast majority of the people we heard from supported the dive teams efforts.

One source summed up the comments of others by saying, “Just look on the Internet and you’ll find lots of shipwreck sites. In fact, Christies, the famous auction house, often auction shipwreck artifacts and nothing happens to them. These guys went through a lot, at their own expense and risked their lives, to recover the lightship artifacts for museum display and now they’re being penalized for it. All one needs to do is look around the country and visit some of the federally funded museums and you’ll see lots of shipwreck artifacts on display. As far as disturbing a gravesite, look at all the land-based gravesites that are called ‘archeological digs’ and the relics from those all end up in museums. Even the bell from the Edmund Fitzgerald is on display and thousands view it every year. It’s a tribute to the brave maritime people who have served the people of this nation and in many cases lost their lives doing so.”

Another person commented, “Most of the artifacts in museums around the country were at one time or another owned by the federal government and in fact abandoned or discarded by them. What is the government going to do, sue to get them all back?”

One voicemail message said, “Years ago, the government used to destroy or throw out old lighthouse items. Thankfully, there were a few leveled-headed people around then who saved what we have left today. Just take a look at many of our lighthouses; they were abandoned by the government, left to decay and rot. The government didn’t even keep one lightship. If it wasn’t for dedicated nonprofits and concerned private citizens there wouldn’t even be any lightships left at all.” This seems to be the sentiment as was stated at the time by the dive group’s attorney, “In fact the government had abandoned the wreck.”

Interestingly, the bell now on display as the Lightship Sailors Memorial in Coast Guard Park in New Bedford, Massachusetts was the bell recovered from the wreck of the Vineyard Lightship. Its recovery was highly publicized, as was the dedication of the memorial that was privately funded. No one complained about that.

Like all stories, this one recently had its ending. The government has dropped its charges against Takakjian and his dive team in exchange for the artifacts being given back to the government. It was first reported that they would go on display at the Coast Guard Museum at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, but there is apparently no room for them. They are now in storage in a Coast Guard warehouse in Boston, where they are according to the Coast Guard, awaiting conservancy and restoration.

We wonder if the legal action, hard feelings, accusations and attempts to damage reputations by some, could have been avoided with a few common sense face-to-face meetings and phone calls. After all, the artifacts are now going to be in a museum, although not rotating. Nevertheless, they will be on display for the public to learn from and appreciate. This is thanks to some dedicated people who spent their own time and money, and risked their lives to keep the story of America’s lightships, our most neglected part of lighthouse history, in the public eye.

This story appeared in the May 2005 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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