Ernestina Timber Mystery Plot Thickens [OPINION]
Even with getting some answers from the Mitchell Administration regarding the timber that went missing from the City Yard, we now have a whole slew of new questions.
On Monday, December 2, Jonathan Carvalho, Public Information Officer for the City of New Bedford, responded to most of the questions which I had submitted on Wednesday, November 28 regarding the disappearance of the Fairhaven Mills timber that had been donated to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts' schooner Ernestina-Morrissey.
In 2009, the mill was razed by Dickinson Redevelopment Corp and the lumber was salvaged for the restoration project, which is now underway in Booth Bay Harbor, Maine.
The wood was stored in the New Bedford City Yard up in Rochester at Quittacas Pond. Originally, the 160 or so beams were stored in the large warehouse there. At some point, around 2015, the lumber was moved outside into the woods.
I contacted five antique lumber experts around the country, from upstate New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, New Hampshire and in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The best estimate of value given by all came to an average of around $330,000. The lowest, worst-case scenario came from Longleaf Lumber out of Cambridge. Their expert, Marc Poirier, assumed the wood was left out for seven winters, which is not the case, but based on the provided photos and everything else, his estimate was $40,000.
The highest estimate came from ALMM Co. out in Wainscott, New York. They estimate, presuming the wood to be in good condition, would be worth a whopping $1 million.
So basically, 160 beams would be valued at $2,062.50 each.
You're probably not going to like what the CIty had to say in response.
In 2017, in an email to WBSM, the same Jonathan Carvalho wrote to WBSM News Director Taylor Cormier, stating that the city was unaware of the intentions for the antique yellow pine beams, and that after a surplus property sale went unsuccessful, someone decided to "give it away."
Here's the transcript of Carvalho's verbal answers, given to me over the phone, to my questions originally submitted to him in writing (Carvalho's responses are 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:
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.
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.
I have also sent two supplemental inquiries, including asking for Carvalho to give me the same responses in written form for posterity, and I'm still awaiting responses on those.
The next day, I also wrote Mr. Carvalho again and asked him if the City planned an internal investigation. I received no reply to that question either as of this writing.
I have a few observations to make about the statements. How can the City know that the wood was not stolen or sold, but "given away" if they don't know who took it, who gave it away, and where it is now?
This makes no sense to me.
The Mitchell Administration's statement is that the Lang Administration never formally informed the new, incoming administration in 2012 that donated wood for the Ernestina-Morrissey was being stored on City property, until which time that the Ernestina requests access to the locked yard to retrieve the wood for the restoration project.
The position of the City is also that it isn't unusual that DPI workers in the Quittacas yard were unaware of the intentions for the lumber kept there since 2009.
But, in the picture above, an expert shipwright and ship designer Harold Burnham of Essex, Massachusetts, who works for DCR, is observed in 2016, after he was sent all the way to Rochester, where he examined the wood in New Bedford's Quittacas yard for preparations to soon prepare the lumber for the Ernestina.
Would he drive all the way down from Essex, without either him or the camera man contacting DPI to tell him who he was, what he wanted to view, who he represented, when he wanted to be there and what for? Wouldn't he first want to secure confirmation from City employees that he would have access to the yard?
Also, the wood was moved from the original storage house and into the woods. Someone from DPI had to be there to show him where it was. How many other times did Ernestina representatives or consultants appear there over the 2012-2016 years?
Several attempts to contact Ernestina-Morrissey board members at the listed phone number of (508) 992-4900, through their message option on the website and at several homes of prior members have been unsuccessful so far.
I have questions for them as well:
Why did you remain silent and not alert the media and the authorities when a fortune of lumber of yours and also of the Commonwealth's, was suddenly no longer available to you?
How much did "Plan B" (replacement wood) cost you?
When you asked for the wood, who did you speak with specifically and what were you told?
How often were you in contact with the city about the lumber?
What was the time-frame between when the wood was examined in 2016 and when the wood was suddenly and forever no longer yours in 2016?
Also, where the hell is the local DCR and why hasn't the state been alerted that a property worth no less than $40,000 disappeared?
Obviously, with more questions left unanswered, there's more digging to be done on this, but the biggest question still remains: where is the wood?
Ken Pittman is the host of The Ken Pittman Show on 1420 WBSM New Bedford. He can be heard Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @RadioKenPittman. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.