Legends of the Lake: Discovering Lake Erie’s Nautical History

Lurking in the murky depths of the Great Lakes are mysterious, sunken artifacts. As long as ships have sailed the lakes, a trove of shipwrecks and maritime disasters have collected on the lake bottoms.

A new Lake Erie shipwreck discovery in July, 2015, by the Cleveland Underwater Explorers (CLUE) spurred Toledo’s National Museum of the Great Lakes to raise funding to excavate and investigate the unique find. The discovery attracted national news headlines because, let’s face it, a shipwreck is intriguing.

Identifying the find

While the name of the ship which was discovered has not been confirmed, information which has been recovered suggests it could be the Lake Serpent. “The shipwreck we found we believe to be the Lake Serpent but it has not been positively identified yet,” said Carrie Sowden, Director of Archaeology for the National Museum of the Great Lakes.

As Snowden is Archaeologist of Record for the Lake Serpent Project, she has reviewed a number of pieces of evidence which could confirm the identity of the ship. “The vessel (appears to have) a figurehead of a serpent on the bow, (but it) is currently buried,” Sowden explained, adding that they are seeking permits from the State of Ohio and the United States Army Corps of Engineers to allow the figurehead to be uncovered, which will help to confirm the identity of the ship.museum-photo

An 1820’s perspective

If confirmed as the Lake Serpent, the shipwreck will be the oldest discovered in Lake Erie, providing insight into early Great Lakes merchant shipping. “At this point the historical significance is its age,” explained Sowden. “It’s a time period that we know very little about in terms of ship building and how they were sailing,” she said. This (could) be the first major contribution to the archaeological record of ships in 1820s Lake Erie, when the Great Lakes region was mostly undeveloped.” According to records, Lake Serpent was hauling stone when it sank, but it was also likely used to haul a wide variety of raw materials.

Using (a) CLUE

Tom Kowalczk of Cleveland Underwater Explorers confirmed the wreck while scuba diving in the Lake. “I’m just an ordinary retired guy who has been scuba diving for a long time in Lake Erie,” he explained, adding that he enjoys seeking shipwrecks in Lake Erie because it provides a focus for his dives, “visibility isn’t real great out there so you gotta have something to (focus on).”

Tom Kowalczk spotted the wreck while scuba diving.
Tom Kowalczk spotted the wreck while scuba diving.

During a routine CLUE sonar exploration of Lake Erie, they happened upon an unknown signal. “We did [only] one dive the year we found it, just to confirm what it was,” Kowalczk stated, a sunken ship and not some other piece of aquatic debris. The wreck rests about 40 feet below the surface in extremely murky water. Though it initially seemed too small to be a ship—“Newer shipwrecks are usually 100 feet or more,” Kowalczk advised—the smaller size of the ship provided some indication of its age.

Following the CLUEs

With most details surrounding 1820’s Great Lakes ship building are still quite vague, Kowalczk’s passion for the past became a helpful asset. “I love history and the challenge of going through the documents and putting things together,” Kowalczk said. “In this area of Lake Erie, settlements along the Lake in the 1820s was still in the very early stages. Cleveland only had about a 1000 people. There were no roads at all on the land, all travel was over water.” To serve developing regional trade, a fleet of ships were required, and they all had to be registered.

According to Kowalczk, “All the vessels plying the Lake waters were enrolled with the federal government, so we have a pretty good record of the vessels that were built.”

Based on details gleaned from the wreck, he was able to narrow it down to just a handful of ships. Lake Serpent seems to be the most likely possibility. Using some obscure accounts of the vessel’s final days, Kowalczk confirmed that the ship stopped in Put-In-Bay on its journey from Cleveland. Days records indicate it left Put-in-Bay, bodies were discovered afloat and locals deduced that the ship must sunk in a storm.

Continuing efforts

Additional excavation around the vessel will provide a better sense of what the ship looks like. According to Sowden, they will build an underwater dredge pump and then carefully move sediment away from the wreck. The expedition is currently planned for this summer and is expected to take about 10 days. Kowalczk relates about additional Erie explorations, “There are older ones than this, but they either haven’t been found or there is nothing left to be found.”

Shipwrecks can become obscured or destroyed by the elements, “The silt builds up and they are buried, “adding, “There are about 200 more that have been sunk in Lake Erie that haven’t been located yet.”

Archaeological projects, like the discovery of the Lake Serpent, are critical to understanding the roots of our regional history. Kowalczk emphasized, “How Toledo got to be Toledo has to do with Great Lakes navigation and shipping.” And of course, the inherent curiosity and intrigue of unearthing a lost remnant of the past. Sowden reiterates, “for some reason, people go nuts for shipwrecks. They love it.”

Lettie May, a ship similar  in size and rigging to  the Lake Serpent.
Lettie May, a ship similar in size and rigging to the Lake Serpent.

189 Years Later: Excavating a sunken schooner

In October, 1829, two bodies washed ashore in Lorain County, about 90 miles east of Toledo. Confirmed as the owners of the Lake Serpent which had gone missing a week prior, sometime after leaving Put-in-Bay. In July, 2015 veteran Lake Erie diver and director of the Cleveland Underwater Explorers (CLUE), Tom Kowalczyk, found evidence of the Lake Serpent wreck while searching east of Kelley’s Island.

While the exact location has not been revealed, the discovery provides the possibility that the oldest shipwreck discovered in Lake Erie lies about 50 miles from Toledo. The wreck, to be excavated this summer, is one of nearly 1,000 vessels currently hidden beneath the surface of Lake Erie.

This summer, the Toledo based National Museum of the Great Lakes will lead the underwater excavation of the site, scheduled for late July and August, with a presentation of findings planned for early November.

In 2000, The National Museum of the Great Lakes, formerly the Great Lakes Historical Society, added underwater archaeological projects to their mission, including searching for and identifying shipwrecks. For the Lake Serpent project, the Museum and their partner CLUE will rely on outside support and donations to explore these wrecks.

$13,000 in funding is required for the project’s ten days of underwater surveying and excavation, to be assisted by over 350 underwater archaeology volunteers. Previously, the Museum completed two other major state approved project—the recovery of the bell of the Cortland and the excavation of the steam engine of the Anthony Wayne.

National Museum of the Great Lakes | 1701 Front St, Toledo
419-214-5000 | inlandseas.org

10am-5pm, Tuesday-Saturday | Noon-5pm, Sunday

To contribute to the Project, visit indiegogo.com/projects/lakeserpentproject#.


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