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By Bob Kostoff

The long and somewhat torturous search for explorer LaSalle's long lost ship the Griffon may reach fruition come next spring.

Steve Libert, president of Great Lakes Exploration Group, said in a recent telephone conversation that excavation deep in Lake Michigan is expected to begin in the spring.

This summer's exploration using sophisticated sonar and other underwater equipment has proven that something substantial exists in the bottom of Lake Michigan where Libert's research tells him the Griffon went down.

He also had the backing of historians and other researchers about this location, Libert said. Whether it is LaSalle's ship or some other ancient craft remains to be proved. But the object lies under a couple of feet of muck and must be excavated carefully.

Libert is confident next year's underwater digging will unearth the Griffon, either intact or at least substantial parts of the ship that can answer some longstanding questions.

Steve Libert is on record as being "obsessed" with exploration. Libert has spent 28 years researching and studying the history of the Griffon, the first European-owned vessel to sail the upper Great Lakes. He is driven by the prospect of finding a vital part of our country's history.

With the announcement in July 2010 of a unique partnership between the Great Lakes Exploration Group, the state of Michigan, and the Republic of France, the way has been cleared for a truly cooperative public/private venture that will protect the scientific and historical value of the shipwreck

The excavation, however, will take a lot of funding, and Libert is looking for historically minded entrepreneurs or organizations interested in finding and displaying the Griffon. He believes, of course, Niagara Falls should be involved, because the ship was built here in the LaSalle section of the city.

Some sources in the past have indicated the Griffon might have been built on the Canadian side of the Niagara River, but most historians, relying on writings of Father Hennepin, believe it was built at the mouth of Cayuga Creek.

For one thing, the portage in those days was on the American side and ships could dock easily at Lewiston Landing. The portage was needed to carry supplies and equipment to the upper river to build such a ship.

LaSalle, accompanied by Iron Hand Tonti and Father Louis Hennepin, was in process of exploring the Great Lakes and Mississippi regions for the French King when the Griffon was built at the mouth of Cayuga Creek in 1679.

After the ship was built, it entered Lake Erie and sailed to Mackinac in Michigan. Father Hennepin wrote about the ship's return voyage on Sept. 18, 1679, laden with expensive furs. LaSalle learned that some of his crew had deserted to Sault St. Marie and he sent Tonti there to apprehend them

LaSalle was waiting for Tonti's return to command the ship back to Niagara while LaSalle moved down the Illinois River continuing his explorations. However Tonti was delayed, the bad weather was coming, so LaSalle sent a small crew under command of his pilot, a Dane named Lucas.

The ship and crew disappeared without a trace. Over the years, many different and varied sites have been named as the final resting place of the Griffon, but Libert believes his assessment is the correct one and believes the excavation will prove this.

He said organizations in Chicago and Detroit have expressed interest in the Griffon and believes other areas will be interested as well, because the Griffon and LaSalle's exploration have had a tremendous effect on the settlement of middle America.

Libert said he has been quite busy and unable to keep up the website, but good background material can still be found at www.lasalle-griffon.org. The site explains the international litigation between France, Libert's group and the state of Michigan, which claimed jurisdiction over the Griffon. Agreement was finally reached in 2010.

Any Niagara Falls residents wanting to become involved in the project can reach Libert through the website or at his personal phone 540-338-2877.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Nov. 22, 2011