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Research team identifies Erie shipwreck as remains of Lake Serpent from 1829

October 5, 2018

Research team identifies Erie shipwreck as remains of Lake Serpent from 1829

CLEVELAND, Ohio – It’s (almost) official. The recently discovered site thought to be the oldest known shipwreck in Lake Erie is almost certainly that: the Lake Serpent.

On Friday, a team from the National Museum of the Great Lakes announced its conclusion that the wreck found in 2015 by Tom Kowalczk off Marblehead, Ohio, is most likely that of the Lake Serpent, a schooner known to have sunk in the area in 1829. Further research is needed to make a definitive statement, it said.

Even though it’s only 75 percent certain, the team’s conclusion makes the wreck “super significant for this time period,” said project leader Carrie Sowden, archeological director at the museum.

The site, she said, now can be regarded as the only physical example of Lake Erie shipbuilding in the 1820s and a large missing piece in the canon of Ohio history.

The decision and lingering doubt about the wreck rest almost entirely on official interpretation of a carving at the ship’s bowsprit.

Sowden said she and her team are confident the carving worn down by almost two centuries in 45 feet of water is a figure of some sort. Whether it’s a snake, however, they aren’t yet certain, but a carving of any kind would have been a rare and distinctive feature in the 1820s.

“What we think of as a serpent may not be what they carved 189 years ago, but it’s definitely been shaped into something,” Sowden explained.

Two other factors support the conclusion. In addition to the bowsprit, researchers also found that the wreck’s dimensions match those of the Lake Serpent. A load of boulders found inside the hull also suggests the wreck predates the 1830s, when quarrying on Kelley’s Island began.

It could be years until the team can make a ruling with 100 percent certainty. Lake Erie does not give up her secrets easily.

Weather and other factors last summer severely limited time and visibility underwater, and the amount of excavation required at the site far exceeded the team’s expectations. The wreck’s condition also was found to be poorer than anticipated.

The public, however, only has so much patience. Thus Friday’s announcement.

“We underestimated how much work it was going to take, but we also didn’t want to leave everybody hanging,” Sowden said. “This gets people talking about the lake and the wreck, and then I get to talk about other wrecks and Lake Erie history.”

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