Environment & Science
5:14 pm
Mon June 17, 2013

Divers in Lake Michigan today hoping to solve the mystery of a 340-year-old shipwreck

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In northern Lake Michigan today explorers are stepping up their effort to find a ship that sank in 1679.

French and American archeologists are on the Lake looking for a ship sailed by the French explorer Robert de La Salle, the Griffin.

So far, the top marine archeologist from France says he thinks they are close to the hull of a ship in northern Lake Michigan. Michel L’Hour says the beam of wood now exposed is likely a bowsprit.

The team excavating the site says the beam is at least 20 feet long and the construction details are typical of colonial ships.

L’Hour says because of the way the timber rises up from the bottom of the lake, it appears to be attached to something. 

"We never saw timber standing up like this one, so it's impossible to imagine it otherwise. So one can expect there is a hull."

“We never saw timber standing up like this one, so it’s impossible to imagine it otherwise. So one can expect there is a hull,” said L’Hour.

History is the treasure

Shipwreck hunting in the Great Lakes is not very glamorous. There’s no gold bullion on these wrecks. The ships mostly moved people and commodities like beaver pelts and iron ore.

Ken Vrana is managing this project and he has worked on these waters for decades. 

“We call this is a blue collar, working class collection of vessels,” said Vrana.

So history is the treasure, and the Griffin is among the most fabled wrecks on the Great Lakes.

It’s whereabouts have been a mystery for nearly 340 years.

Searching for the Griffin

Steve Libert, who lives in Virginia, thinks he just might have solved that mystery. He’s spent more than three decades, most of his adult life, searching for the Griffin.

In 2001, Libert found a beam of wood sticking out the bottom of Lake Michigan with a few wooden pegs in it.

That story of the discovery isn’t very glamorous either. Libert says he couldn’t see very much at all and was even having trouble reading his air gauge.

"When I looked down to try to read it all of sudden I bumped right into it. It actually knocked my face mask off."

"When I looked down to try to read it all of sudden I bumped right into it. It actually knocked my face mask off," said Libert.

Libert’s team, the Great Lakes Exploration Group, fought in court for almost a decade to hang onto his claim to the site.

Last month, a permit was finally issued so that excavation could begin, and this week Libert’s dream came true.

Team dives to the discovery in Lake Michigan

French archeologists are here diving on Libert's discovery.

Michel L’Hour says the woodwork is typical of vessels from that era but that doesn’t yet tell them much.

The ship’s hull, if there is one down there, will tell them much more.

“It’s more, probably, not only details of shipbuilding but about some artifacts which can be conserved in the hull. And in association between the artifacts and shipbuilding we can be sure of the origin of the ship. But at the moment we have nothing of that,” said L’Hour.

The Griffin was a symbol of France's ambitions in North America.

The Griffin was a symbol of France’s ambitions in North America.

Robert de La Salle was sent by Louis XIV to build a fort at the mouth of the Mississippi River and the ship was built to support that mission.

Rich Gross is a historian who has worked with Great Lakes Exploration.

He says the King wanted to keep the British out of the Mississippi River basin.

"So the English were pretty much sealed off east of the Appalachian Mountains… If they had come over the mountains and started trading with the Indians, there goes the supply of furs and the entire economy of New France," said Gross.

The Griffin sank on its first voyage and the fort was never built.

If found, the ship would belong to France.

Divers will continue today to dredge the site at the bottom of Lake Michigan where they think the Griffin came to rest.