Underwater Archaeologists May Have Discovered the Oldest Shipwreck in Lake Erie
After an ill-fated journey hauling boulders sank it, the Lake Serpent is at last ready to tell its story
The Lake Serpent, an eight-year-old, 47-foot schooner, left Cleveland in September 1829 for the 55-mile trip to the Lake Erie Islands. Upon arriving at the island rich with limestone, the ship’s crew collected a load of stone to return to Cleveland. (Four years later, the island would be bought by a pair of brothers, Atus and Irad Kelley. It’s been known as Kelleys Island since.)
The ship never made it back, one of thousands to sink on the Great Lakes; the bodies of Captain Ezera Wright and his brother Robert washed ashore in Lorain County, just west of Cleveland. The Lake Serpent was lost forever at the bottom of the lake.
On Friday, however, the National Museum of the Great Lakes, located in nearby Toledo, announced that the Serpent may have been found, and it is believed to be the oldest-known shipwreck in Lake Erie.
The history of the Great Lakes is a microcosm of the history of the United States. Command of the Great Lakes was an important front in the War of 1812, and small outposts dotted around them grew into some of the nation’s biggest cities — Detroit, Chicago, Buffalo and Milwaukee. The lakes became relatively inexpensive methods to ship cargo, from taconite pellets from Minnesota's Mesabi Iron Range to grain from America’s breadbasket.
But the lakes were also quite treacherous, with plenty of vessels falling victim to bad weather or other misfortune and sinking. For generations, those ships lay at the bottom of the lake, deteriorating little by little as the waters reduced enormous ships to the point where they are nearly indistinguishable from the lake bottom.
Thanks to the efforts of Chris Gillcrist, the director of the museum, and an intrepid team of divers and underwater archaeologists, these wrecks are being salvaged and studied, imparting new information about the evolution of travel and transportation on the lakes through American history.
In 1999, when Gillcrist started at the museum, then called the Inland Seas Maritime Museum and situated in the small lakeside town of Vermillion, he noticed an impressive cache of shipwreck artifacts in the collection, but no concerted effort to share them with visitors in a public exhibit.
“The organization was founded and run by a board that [included] presidents and executives of shipping companies, and they didn’t like talking about shipwrecks,” says Gillcrist, coming up on his 20th year as the director of the museum, which moved to Toledo in 2014.
Gillcrist was able to convince the board that shipwrecks were not just an important part of the museum’s scope, but the last frontier in the history of the Great Lakes. The blockbuster success at the time of Titanic bolstered his case. “It had such a tremendous impact on people’s perception of what a shipwreck is,” he says.
Within five years, the museum hired Carrie Sowden as archaeological director, and shortly after that, partnered with Cleveland Underwater Explorers (CLUE), a diving group that explores Lake Erie. Since then, they’ve found the wreckage of about a dozen shipwrecks in Lake Erie and a handful more on Lake Ontario – each with a story to tell about a time and place in history.
“There’s a lot of missing history under the lakes,” says Sowden. “You increase the history that’s known by examining what’s out there, and the museum made the commitment to understand history through those submerged sites.”
Many of CLUE’s members have degrees in engineering, which informs the precision of their research, which starts well before they go into the water, poring over contemporary news accounts and government archives (commercial vessels had to be registered even then.)
“We come up with a target list,” says David VanZandt, CLUE’s director and chief archaeologist, who feels enough of a kinship to Lake Erie to refer to it as “my lake.” “We get good location data and narrow down and start searching for [the boat].”
Optimally, he looks for wrecks within a 25-square-mile radius, noting that it takes an hour or two just to search one square mile using a side-scan sonar.
“If there’s no good information, [the boat] goes to the bottom of the list,” he says, adding that the public may incorrectly assume that his team ventures out to just “play on the water,” without more precise information.
Yet, ironically, that is exactly how Tom Kowalczk, CLUE’s director of remote sensing, found the Lake Serpent. Kowalczk grew up in Port Clinton, a lakefront town in an area known for its abundance of campgrounds and summer cottages, and still lives in the area.
One day in 2015, something small showed up on a scan near Kelleys Island. “It was really interesting, but I dismissed it as a rock or something because I thought it was too small to be a shipwreck,” Kowalczk recalls. A dive later that year revealed it to be a wooden schooner, and its small size, along with it being buried under decades of sediment, led Kowalczk to believe it was a particularly old one. He thought initially it was the Lexington, a schooner that sank in the 1840s.
The unpredictable Lake Erie weather meant that the team couldn’t do as much work as they’d have liked, Sowden notes, but a few clues derived from their dives gave them enough information to indicate that they’d discovered the Lake Serpent. Contemporary records explained that the ship had an elaborate carving of a snake on its bow, and the CLUE divers identified a carving on the wreck’s bow.
Further, an 1829 newspaper article from the Cleveland Weekly Herald reported that the boat was carrying a load of stone from Kelley’s Island, and dives found boulders in the ship’s hold – consistent with the timeline of the Serpent’s sinking. Had the stones been obtained any subsequent year, after the quarries opened in 1830, the ship’s cargo would have been smoother blocks, not the boulders found in the shipwreck. “It’s all lining up,” recalls Sowden.
She still has more work to do, but the museum feels it can claim, with about 75 percent certainty, that this find is the Lake Serpent.
“For every two days you spend in the field, you spend about a month working on the data,” she says.
The Lake Serpent represents just the most recent announcement made by the museum, but it’s not even the only one this year. In March, the museum announced the discovery of the Margaret Olwill, a 554-foot barge carrying a load of limestone from Kelleys Island. A small storm turned into a dangerous gale, ultimately capsizing the vessel in 1899.
The Great Lakes have more shipwrecks per square mile than anywhere else, with more than 2,000 in Lake Erie alone. Its shallow waters ——Erie is the shallowest of the five Great Lakes — makes it easier for shipwrecks to be spotted, but that comes with the downside of being found in worse condition.
“The shallower the water, the less likely it’s found [in the same condition as when] it sank,” Gillcrist says. “There are shipwrecks found off Kelley’s Island in 15 feet of water and they’re pancakes.” By comparison, the Antelope, which sank in 1897 in Lake Superior, was found astonishingly intact under about 300 feet of water in 2016.
The Holy Grail of Great Lakes shipwrecks is Le Griffon, the first European-style ship built by explorer Robert De La Salle that is believed to have sank in Lake Michigan in a storm in 1679. “People have been ‘finding’ it for years, and it always ends up being not that vessel,” Sowden says.
A more-likely find high on the museum’s target list is the Marquette & Bessemer No. 2, a 338-foot steel-hulled railroad car ferry that left Ashtabula, Ohio, for Port Stanley, Ontario, in 1909 and disappeared.
“It’s a pretty big [piece of] steel in the shallowest Great Lake for it not to be found,” Gillcrist says.
But contradictory witness reports and the difficulty of separating myth from fact – combined with the accumulation of silt of more than a century – will make finding it difficult no matter how big it might be.
In the meantime, Sowden would like to do more dives to the Lake Serpent site, but Gillcrist notes that because of Ohio law, they can’t bring anything up to display. Instead, there will be a series of lectures next year at the Lakewood Historical Society, the Sandusky Maritime Museum, the Toledo Shipmasters Association and the Great Lakes Maritime Institute in Detroit. All helped financially support the project.
But there are plenty of other shipwreck artifacts — all brought up before current laws were enacted, Gillcrist notes — at the museum in Toledo, items that weren’t displayed in Vermilion and at least one that couldn’t have been displayed because of its size: A lifeboat from the Edmund Fitzgerald, probably the most famous of all Great Lakes shipwrecks. It popped up to the surface after the freighter sank in the gales of November 1975.
While it might have been common to hide the shipwreck artifacts out of superstition, Gillcrist understands that they need to be displayed.
“If you try to do Great Lakes history without shipwrecks, you’re not telling the whole story,” he says. “And shipwrecks draw people in. There’s something about them that speaks to people’s interest.”
Vince Guerrieri is an award-winning journalist and author in the Cleveland area.