Valuable Timber Donated to Restoration of Century Old Ship Ernestina Lost by City of New Bedford

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NEW BEDFORD – What started out as a generous offer by the City of New Bedford may have turned into a complete disaster, and nobody can figure out what happened.

It’s a story that spans nine years and covers the Whaling City and its surrounding towns, where a collection of highly rare and extremely valuable southern pine, donated for the restoration of the century-old Ernestina, has gone missing.

It all started in 2009 in the north end of New Bedford when the long-standing Fairhaven Mills building was leveled to allow for the construction of a Market Basket supermarket and a lot with surrounding satellite shops.

At one point several years ago, the Ernestina  was being considered for use as a training vessel with the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay.

The historic ship is currently being restored by the Schooner Ernestina-Morrissey Association.

After its demolition, it was found that the frame of the Fairhaven Mills building was made with the rare southern pine and a mass abundance of the timber was able to be salvaged.

Thanks to a deal forged by then-Mayor Scott Lang between the City and the winning bidder of the demolition contract, The Dickinson Development Corporation, the wood was agreed to be donated to the restoration of the Ernestina. As part of the deal, the City of New Bedford agreed to store and adequately care for the wood.

Since then, plans for a restoration of the ship have been in the works, with The State Department of Conservation and Recreation sending expert shipwright and builder Harold Burnham to assess it in 2016.

On November 27, New Bedford talk show host and columnist Ken Pittman, also a private investigator, broke the story of how the southern pine has seemingly vanished from the Rochester facility where it was stored.

Pittman reports that following the agreement with Dickinson Development, the roughly 160 beams of lumber were taken to the city yard in Rochester at Quittacas Pond. The property is listed as being at 1 Negus Way in East Freetown but is also considered to be in Rochester. It’s worth noting that Rochester and Freetown part of two different counties.

In 2017, Public Information Officer for the City of New Bedford, Jonathan Carvalho, responded to an original inquiry on the missing lumber from a New Bedford radio station, stating that the city had mistakenly given it away. According to Carvalho, someone was unaware of the importance and intended use of the yellow pine and gave it away after it failed to sell as surplus property.  

On December 4, Carvalho responded to a series of questions from Pittman, and again explained that the lumber was mistakenly given away by an unaware city employee. Carvalho explained that the City had conducted a past investigation into the matter, but the identity of the city worker, the exact date of when the wood was taken from Quitticas Pond, and who the wood was given to remains unknown.

Pittman provided a transcript of his interview with Carvalho, whose responses are highlighted in bold:

  1. Can the City produce a surplus property notice with regards to this lumber? There was no surplus property sale or auction.
  2. Who decided to give the lumber away? We don’t know.
  3. Where specifically did it end up? I’ve been told it was given to a developer who milled it and used it for his own home construction. We don’t know.
  4. When specifically was it given away? We don’t know exactly when. In 2016, though. Who provided the labor of getting the tens of tons of wood off of the ground and onto truck(s) and who transported the timber off the yard? Failed to answer.
  5. What is the standard of criteria for the city to not be compelled to make public notice for surplus properties and decide what can and will be given away and to whom?The Criteria is it must be city property with a value of over $10K, that compels a surplus property public notice.
  6. Two parts:
  7. A) Was there not one person in the Quittacas yard who was aware of the history of the lumber in the roughly seven years it was stored there and including the time it was deemed City-owned surplus?  I don’t know who, but I’m not saying nobody knew about the wood. I’m saying that I think who ever gave the wood away didn’t know.
  8. B) Was there no communication in writing by the Lang administration to the incoming Mitchell, articulating the Ernestina’s timber being stored by the City? No Communications or records from the Lang Administration offered to the Mitchell Administration about the donated wood at Quitttacas Pond Yard.

On December 7, City Councilor At-Large Brian Gomes called for another investigation into the matter while on the Barry Richard Show.

In his weekly appearance with Barry Richard on December 12, Mayor Jon Mitchell announced that the City is conducting another investigation into the missing wood.  Mitchell added that as far as he is aware, it doesn’t appear thus far that the yellow pine went missing by means of a criminal act.

Mitchell also said that if any illegal activity involving the movement of the wood from Quitticas Pond were uncovered, he would immediately notify Bristol County District Attorney Thomas Quinn III. It’s unknown whether if Quinn, or Plymouth County District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz would have jurisdiction if it was brought to court based on the location of Quitticas Pond.

Mayor Mitchell says the City has contacted the party that took delivery of the lumber, and the party has refused to return the wood.

On Thursday, the New Bedford City Council voted to launch an investigation into the matter, this time by the Committee on Internal Affairs.

The Council will also be notifying the Bristol County District Attorney’s Office and Attorney General Maura Healey of the missing lumber.

The reaction and response by Mayor Jon Mitchell has been criticized by many in the New Bedford media market for appearing to downplay the situation and for providing inconsistent accounts of what happened to the wood.

The Mayor has also been criticized for what some call a lackluster original 2016 investigation, most notably for not being able to reveal the name of the DPI worker that allegedly gave the wood away by accident, when the wood was taken, or the name of the person or contractor the wood was given to.

According to the Schooner Ernestina-Morrissey Association’s website, the association received $100,000 from City of New Bedford’s Community Preservation funds for the project back in August.

By TIM DUNN, News Center 

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