Sieur de la Salle

Historian: Great Lakes take toll on ships

By Katherine Sanderson - South Bend Tribune


The Great Lakes are in a terrible location, said Travis Childs, director of school programs for the Center for History in South Bend.

Cold blasts from the Arctic Circle meet tropical gusts from the Gulf of Mexico. It makes sailing in the latter months of the year especially dangerous.

Childs talked about Great Lakes shipwrecks the day after the 35th anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior. His speech was given to the American Heritage Round Table at the downtown Mishawaka Library.

Most of the shipwrecks he talked about happened in October, November and December.  And they go back to the first ship built to sail the Great Lakes.

The Griffon was built near Buffalo, N.Y., and in 1679 took explorer Robert LaSalle across Lake Erie, through Lake Huron, across the Straits of Mackinac to what would become Green Bay, Wis. There, LaSalle left the ship and continued his exploration through the Mississippi Valley, including a stop at what is now Riverview Cemetery in South Bend in December of that year.

The ship headed back east. "They never saw the Griffon again," Childs said.

There was no word after the Griffon left Green Bay, although the theory is that the ship made it through the Straits of Mackinac and sank in upper Lake Huron. No vessel has been found, however.

"It's the holy grail of trying to find shipwrecks," he said.

With no highways in those days, the Great Lakes were perfect for transportation, but not for every ship.

The Cyprus sailed for 24 days in September and October of 1907 before it sank in Lake Superior.

The L.R. Doty left Chicago in 1898 full of corn, towing the Olive Jeanette. They hit a gale and the tow line was severed leaving the crew of the Olive Jeanette to ride it out. The Olive Jeanette made it to Racine, Wis. The wreckage of the L.R. Doty was eventually found off Milwaukee.

Childs said that for a long time no one knew where the Doty sank, but this past May it was located in Lake Michigan in 300 feet of water.