Michigan mounts effort to halt salvage of purported shipwreck

Steven Libert maintains he's found the Griffin

By Patrick Sullivan, Record-Eagle staff writer
October 9, 2004
- Record-Eagle

TRAVERSE CITY -Michigan's Attorney General said a local man may or may not have found a shipwreck of historical significance in Lake Michigan, but they nonetheless want to stop him from salvaging it.

Steven Libert, who lives in Virginia and has a home in Charlevoix, has not identified the shipwreck he believes he found near Poverty Island, but said scientific evidence shows it could be the Griffin, the first European decked ship to sail the upper Great Lakes.

The Griffin, considered by some to be the Holy Grail of Great Lakes shipwrecks, was built by French explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, and lost in 1679 during its maiden voyage.

Libert has said it's too early to know for sure what he's found, but he sued the shipwreck in federal court in Grand Rapids in an effort to take legal possession of the vessel.

The State of Michigan recently filed dozens of pages of motions in an effort to intervene and have the lawsuit dismissed.

The state's motion was filed on behalf of the Michigan Department of History, Arts and Libraries and the Department of Environmental Quality, and allege that state law and the Abandoned Shipwreck Act give Michigan ownership of shipwrecks of historical significance on its bottomlands in the Great Lakes.

James R. Piggush, assistant attorney general, said in the filings that Libert's company, Great Lakes Exploration LLC, has not properly identified the shipwreck it seeks.

The ship is described in the lawsuit as being located in a 38.5-square-mile area near Poverty Island, off the mouth of Green Bay. The ship may have sunk during a foreign research expedition scores of years ago, according to the suit.

Great Lakes Exploration filed photos of the "purported wreck," Piggush wrote, but the photos only reveal something that "appears out of the (Lake Michigan) bottom looking much like a needle."

Piggush argues that there is no indication in the photograph that anything is attached to the vertical object sticking from the lake bottom, and no indication of a ship structure below the surface.

But Piggush wrote that if a vessel that matches Libert's description is there, it could be of historical significance.

"A 45-ton, 40- to 60-foot long, wooden, hand-built sailing vessel with a beam of 10 to 22 feet, and a crew of five, lost and abandoned near Poverty Island prior to the 20th century, would be a significant archaeological find," Piggush wrote.

Libert's attorney, Richard Robel, said Great Lakes Exploration has not been served with the state's motions.

"Great Lakes Exploration is committed to preserving the site, and would welcome the state's support and input," Robel said. "Great Lakes would again like to take the opportunity to invite the state to join it in a positive dialogue about how best to serve the interests of all involved, including those of future generations."

Robel said Libert's company is working with the Field Museum of Chicago to explore and analyze the site.

"Such an effort would be far preferable to years of legal squabbling, which could potentially hamper scientific exploration and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in lawyers' fees," Robel said.

Libert says he would like to work with Michigan officials, but if the shipwreck turns out to be the Griffin, that could mean the Abandoned Shipwreck Act does not apply.

"If this was the Griffin and I knew for sure, it would take the ASA right out of this because France would own it," Libert said.

© 2004 Record-Eagle. Used with permission