TRAVERSE CITY — Divers and scientists who combed a section of northern Lake Michigan for a 17th century shipwreck have retrieved a wooden beam that could belong to the long-lost Griffin, expedition leaders said Wednesday.
The nearly 20-foot-long timber, about half of which protruded from the lake bed until dislodged last week as searchers dug beneath it, may hold the key to whether shipwreck hunter Steve Libert has discovered the remains of the mysterious vessel commanded by French explorer Rene Robert Cavelier de la Salle. It disappeared in 1679 after casting off from an island near the entrance of Green Bay with a crew of six and a cargo of furs. It was the first ship of European design to traverse the upper Great Lakes.
Libert’s team removed it from the lake Saturday but waited to announce it until arrangements for its safekeeping were completed, said Ken Vrana, the expedition’s project manager. Crews lifted the heavy object onto a commercial fishing boat and hauled it to shore, then loaded it into a refrigerated truck for transport to a safe location, Libert said. It was wrapped in protective cloth and kept wet.
“It’s not a smoking gun,” Vrana said. “It could have come from other early wooden sailing vessels. But based on architectural drawings, overall length, construction details ... we cannot rule out this piece as being from the Griffin.”
Libert, who has sought the Griffin for three decades, bumped into the beam during a 2001 dive and battled the state of Michigan in court over custody of what he suspected was buried wreckage. After finally securing state and federal permits to excavate in the area, his organization dug a deep pit at the base of the timber but found nothing except bedrock. The beam, they learned, was simply wedged in hard-packed, clay-like mud.
Even so, three French archaeologists who inspected the timber said it appeared to be a bowsprit — a spur or pole that extends from a vessel’s stem — that was hundreds of years old.