Tall ships captain Rybka to tell story of Battle of Lake Erie in Heritage Lecture


Robert Lowry | Courtesy of Erie Maritime Museum
Carronade firing. The Niagara as she sails today — built in 1988.

Though often overlooked and misunderstood, the War of 1812 was formidable in the history of the United States. To contribute to Chautauqua’s further understanding of the war, and especially of the Battle of Lake Erie, the Oliver Archives Heritage Lecture Series will sponsor Captain Walter Rybka’s lecture at 3:30 p.m. today in the Hall of Christ.

Rybka’s talk is titled “Don’t Give Up the Ship! Recounting the Battle of Lake Erie 200 years later.”

Rybka is curator of the Erie Maritime Museum and senior captain of the US Brig Niagara, a reconstructed flagship of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry.

To the British, the War of 1812 is a nickel sideshow to the Napoleonic Wars, Rypka said. It is a victory to the Canadians and to Americans, a combination of the two.

The war earned the U.S. a grudging respect from Great Britain and contributed to the United States’ sense of itself as an independent country.

The Battle of Lake Erie took place on Sept. 10, 1813, and it started off poorly for Commodore Perry, the battle’s eventual hero. Although Perry’s forces were large, they were scattered, Rybka said, and the situation at one point seemed hopeless. But a change in wind and timely maneuvering turned the tide in a battle that saw considerable destruction to the enemy’s vessels.

In the end, it was Perry’s words to General William Henry Harrison that history remembers: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”

The Erie Maritime Museum commemorates many aspects of Lake Erie maritime history, Rybka said, but mainly focuses on the War of 1812. One signature rendering is of the fall of the USS Lawrence, a ship that was brutally damaged in the Battle of Lake Erie.

“It shows the kind of damage that can be done in war,” Rybka said.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Rybka took a summer job as a youth with the restored 1885 Pioneer schooner that sailed out of New York City, and he has never looked back, having been able to turn his love for sailing into a career. He has always worked in 19th-century ships, combining sailing and historical restoration. Once a full time captain, he eventually moved ashore to supervise the Erie Maritime Museum, an institution, he added, well worth a visit.