The museum opened in September of 2011 to showcase a large private collection of model ships, from the very famous to little-known vessels. Founder Bert Cunningham told Lucy Martin this unexpected hobby grew to the point where sharing it just seemed like the right thing to do.
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As we sat between dozens of stately model ships in large glass display cases, Bert Cunningham began by establishing the museum's location and its historical significance. It's about a 20 minute drive from Prescott/Ogdensburg and half an hour from Cornwall/Massena.
The adjacent bay overlooks the Seaway's Iroquois lock and dam. Back when the War of 1812 broke out, the bayside land was just a farm that belonged to the Doran family.
In the second year of that war Cunningham explained how an American Army of about seven thousand left Sacket's Harbor and slipped past defensive forces at Kingston and Prescott. Their goal: march to Montreal and capture Canada.
The bay beside Doran's farm looked like a good spot to come ashore. As Cunningham set the scene: “This is where the American army of about 7,000 soldiers landed and invaded Canada. They spent about two-and-a-half days here on this property, the Doran Farm, before they went to what is now Upper Canada Village, Crysler's Farm Battlefield Park, where there was a major battle in 1813. But they actually spent more time on this particular property then they spent at Crysler farm.”
The American forces were defeated at the Battle of Crysler's Farm. Win or lose, it was pretty big event – an army of thousands arriving on a flotilla of over 300 assorted boats. Cunningham continued the account: “Here they off-loaded all their artillery and – I'm told – close to 500 horses, because they had a brigade of calvary. They off-loaded everything and they would have set up all their encampment here, their bivouacs. It was the only time, really, that this whole army was together, from the the time it left Sacket's Harbor.”
According to historians, the American invasion failed because it was a disorganized mess. Canadians take pride in putting up a vigorous defense at crucial junctures too.
Cunningham wishes this regional connection to larger events was better-known: “Even a lot of local people are not aware of the fact that this was like the D-Day landing here. There wasn't a lot of resistance. They did encounter the Dundas Militia here. But the militia was outnumbered and just let off a few volleys and then faded away into the woods.”
Cunningham's proud of his collection of models from the War of 1812, now standing at more than twenty. “Quite a few of them I don't think had ever been built before, because I know the difficulty I had in trying to research the plans and get plans for some of these ships. So, if there are any War of 1812 buffs listening, or naval buffs, they would find this collection very interesting.”
His display features many Canadian and British ships and a healthy number from the American Revolutionary War. All told, he has well over a hundred models, but only has room to display slightly more than half at present.
Cunningham laughed when asked about locating accurate blueprints. “They're not easy to find! You have to call a lot of museums. The British were meticulous at keeping plans for their vessels. So the Maritime Museum in Greenwich has a fabulous collection of plans for British ships. But even their collection of plans is not complete – as it relates to some British ships that were built here.”
Pointing to a model of the HMS St. Lawrence, Cunningham explained it was a first-rate ship, meaning it boasted three rows of cannons on each side. Built in Kingston Harbor, during the War of 1812 Cunningham said it was a very powerful ship for that time, with 120 cannons and a crew of over 700 men. Putting that in perspective, he said: “Today it would be like building an aircraft carrier on a lake.”
Finding complete plans for the St. Lawrence required research at National Archives in Canada, and in England. Despite the difficulty, Cunningham says every model on display was built from original plans.
Cunningham recounted how Loyalist refugees settled in Canada after the Revolutionary War which lead to a discussion of ship building on Carleton Island, near Clayton, New York. “It's now a private island – an American island. But in those days it was a British island and that's where they built a lot of their boats.”
One, the HMS Ontario, was launched in 1780. Only a few months later, it sank on Halloween night. “And the whole crew was lost – captain and crew.” That tragedy still generates interest. As Cunningham explained, “There's been people searching for this boat for a number of years and they've recently found it. It's in the western end of Lake Ontario in 300 feet of water and it's in perfect condition.”
So, once plans are in hand, how do the models get built?
The back story there is Cunningham's wide-ranging career that included working in over 60 countries across Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Starting in 2000, he spent about 8 years working on Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean to the east of Madagascar. Cunningham says he was asked to modernize and lead the customs department in Mauritius and reduce high levels of corruption.
It was in Mauritius that he came across crafters building high-quality model ships for clients such as European museums. Having loved maritime history from boyhood, he decided to have some model ships built for his large, empty office. That proved to be a great ice-breaker for his usual stream of unwilling visitors. “These were all the fraudsters and drug smugglers, etc. They didn't want to talk to me – but they liked looking at these models! So I thought, you know, it's such a unique fine art, and such a high quality fine art, I think I can really get into this.”
Cunningham quickly got hooked and said sometimes he had six or eight ships being built at once. One of his more recent commissions is a model of a British gunboat, the HMS Radcliffe, from the War of 1812. That model currently sits beside the actual wreck of the Radcliffe, which was salvaged and is now on display in the new visitor center at Fort Wellington in Prescott.