A Royal Navy ship whose "bombs bursting in air" inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner" two centuries ago may have been discovered Sunday in Arctic waters.

Canadian officials found what they believe is either HMS Erebus or HMS Terror, the latter a Royal Navy ship that bombarded Fort McHenry in the Battle of Baltimore. Both were lost a generation later on the Franklin Expedition, a voyage to map the Northwest Passage through the Arctic Ocean.


Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the discovery Monday, calling it a resolution of "one of Canada's greatest mysteries." The Canadian park service spent six years scouring the icy waters off of Nunavut for the wreckage.

Maryland historians marveled at the finding, coinciding with the battle's bicentennial celebrations.

"The timing is incredible," said Troy Nowak, an underwater archaeologist with the Maryland Historical Trust. "I do not believe another ship from the Battle of Baltimore has been discovered."

The Terror was a year-old bomb vessel that launched mortar shells against the fort during the attack Sept. 13-14, 1814. It was later used in Arctic and Antarctic exploration, including Sir John Franklin's ill-fated 1846 journey, because of its strong hull.

A rocket vessel bearing the name HMS Erebus was also involved in the bombardment of Fort McHenry, but it was laid up in 1816 and replaced with a bomb vessel of the same name in 1826.

A remotely operated underwater vehicle confirmed the discovery of the ship, about 36 feet below the surface in Queen Maud Gulf, off the Nunavut mainland about 1,800 miles north of Toronto, said John Geiger, CEO of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, which participated in the search. Parks Canada, a federal agency, has led six searches for the lost ships since 2008.

The Erebus and Terror left England in May 1845 in search of a Northwest Passage to Asia. The expedition's two ships set out with 129 officers and men under Franklin's command.

But the ships became trapped in ice in late 1846 and remained so for a year and a half, according to a message found in a cairn on King William Island in 1859. The message said Franklin died June 11, 1847, and 23 crew members had also died. In April 1848, the 105 remaining crew members deserted the ships, but all are presumed to have died. Both ships vanished.

"This is one of the two most important undiscovered shipwrecks in the world," Geiger said in a statement. "It's a wonderful and exciting discovery that promises to shed more light on the ill-fated expedition's final months, weeks, and days."

Early glimpses of the wreckage suggest it is well preserved. Parks Canada's Ryan Harris, who led the search, revealed this week in Ottawa a sonar image of the find that showed deck structures and the mainmast, which was sheared off by the ice when the ship sank. The contents of the ship are likely well preserved, Harris said, according to a press pool report.

The melting of Arctic ice sheets is opening up the possibility that ships traveling between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans could use the Northwest Passage as a shortcut. Canada says it has sovereignty over the passage, but the United States does not acknowledge this, saying the channel lies in international waters.

The chief organizer of Baltimore's Star-Spangled Spectacular said the discovery highlights the international connections of that era. The Canadian ambassador to the U.S., as well as the British ambassador, will be on hand at Fort McHenry on Saturday, speaking alongside Vice President Joe Biden, he added.

"It's a really intriguing discovery," said Bill Pencek, executive director of the Maryland War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission. "There's no place but Ontario, and the nation of Canada as a whole, that matches the enthusiasm for the War of 1812 as we do here in Maryland."

The bicentennial commemoration has included various archaeological investigations. The historic trust conducted archival research on the Battle of Baltimore and others, and did field work in the Sassafras River on the Eastern Shore, Nowak said.


A dig of Hampstead Hill in Patterson Park uncovered remnants of a butcher's shop that served as a headquarters for militiamen fending off a land attack in the battles of North Point and Baltimore, as well as some small artifacts.

Bloomberg News and Reuters contributed to this article.