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Archaeologists Search Lake Michigan For 1679 Ship Wreckage


Now let's hunt for a hidden treasure - although it's not worth all that much - except to history buffs. Archaeologists are on Lake Michigan today looking for the oldest shipwreck in the Great Lakes. They're searching for the Griffin, which was being sailed by the French explorer Robert de La Salle when it sank in 1679. The archaeologists might be on the right track. They uncovered a wooden beam that looks like the mast of a ship. Peter Payette of Interlochen Public Radio reports.

PETER PAYETTE, BYLINE: Shipwreck hunting in the Great Lakes is not very glamorous. There's no gold bullion on these wrecks. Ships on the Great Lakes mostly moved people and commodities like beaver pelts and iron ore. Ken Vrana is managing this project and has worked on these waters for decades.

KEN VRANA: We call it - this is a blue collar, working-class collection of vessels.

PAYETTE: So history is the treasure, and among the most fabled wrecks is the Griffin, the first European ship ever to sail the upper lakes. Its whereabouts have been a mystery for more than 340 years. 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.

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

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

PAYETTE: Libert's team 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. French archeologists are in Michigan to see the timber Steve Libert found. The director of underwater archeology in France, Michel L'Hour, is among them.


PAYETTE: From the deck of the fishing boat, Proud Maid, he and another researcher plunged into the 50-degree water of Lake Michigan to have look. L'Hour says it feels like the beam is attached to something. He says you can move it but not very much.

MICHEL L'HOUR: Either this timber is very deeply cemented in the sedimentation of the lake or it's connected to another structure. I don't know what.

PAYETTE: A team of divers is excavating a test pit alongside the timber. Last night the pit showed that the timber is at least 18 feet long. 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.

L'HOUR: It's more, probably, not only details about the 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.

PAYETTE: 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 boat 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.

RICH GROSS: So the English were, at that time, 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 was based on the fur trade.

PAYETTE: The Griffin sank on its first voyage and the fort was never built. If found, the ship would belong to France. And divers will continue today to dredge the site at the bottom of Lake Michigan where they think it came to rest. For NPR News I'm Peter Payette in Fairport, Michigan.

GREENE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Payette is the Executive Director of Interlochen Public Radio and has managed the news department since 2001. For more than a decade, he hosted the weekly programPoints North and has reported on a wide range of issues critical to the culture and economy of northern Michigan. His work has been featured on NPR, Michigan Radio, Bridge magazine and Edible Grande Traverse. He has taught journalism and radio production to students and adults at Interlochen Center for the Arts. He is also working on a book about the use of aquaculture to manage Great Lakes fisheries, particularly the use of salmon from the Pacific Ocean to create a sport fishery in the 1960s.