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Le Griffon never made it to port but lives on in a Buffalo park and the Canisius mascot

The tall ships are picking up anchor and, in their wake, leaving ancient memories of the first of their kind on our fair shores.

Next month it will be 340 years since Le Griffon set sail from the Niagara River and crossed Lake Erie on a voyage that connects the twin waterfront parks that Ralph Wilson’s foundation is rebirthing in Buffalo and Detroit.

Le Griffon is remembered in North American maritime history as the first full-sized sailing ship to ply the waters of the upper Great Lakes, though the graceful bark canoes of the Iroquois navigated our inland seas for centuries before the coming of European-style vessels.

Niagara’s thundering waterfalls put the Great Lakes, other than Ontario, out of reach of full-sized sailing ships until Rene-Robert Cavelier Sieur de La Salle built his ship on the upper Niagara River, near Cayuga Creek, in 1679.

Buffalo’s La Salle Park is named for the French explorer, who in turn named his ship for the griffin in the coat of arms of his patron, Louis de Buade de Frontenac, then governor general of New France, as French holdings in North America were known.

The Appledore IV sails in Buffalo Harbor. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

La Salle set sail on Aug. 7, 1679, in search of a Northwest passage to China. The 45-ton ship, armed with seven cannons and with 34 men aboard, sailed into Lake Erie past what is now La Salle Park. It traversed uncharted waters, by deeply forested shores, and arrived days later at the Detroit River — sailing past what is now West Riverfront Park.

The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation will spend a combined $200 million to improve Buffalo’s and Detroit’s signature waterfront parks and regional trail systems. The parks will be renamed for the late owner of the Buffalo Bills, whose longtime home on Michigan’s Lake St. Clair is so named because Le Griffon arrived there on Aug. 12, the saint’s feast day.

The ship would make its way into lakes Huron and Michigan. La Salle would stay behind when he ordered the boat sent back, laden with furs. Le Griffon never arrived, presumably the victim of a violent storm. The Great Lakes, as Herman Melville wrote in Moby-Dick, “have drowned full many a midnight ship with all its shrieking crew.”

The prow of La Salle’s craft was adorned with a griffin that would one day fly out of the sunken depths of history and land at Canisius College, where the athletic teams are called Golden Griffins in homage to this great ghost boat of the Great Lakes.

Some might well question the wisdom of naming athletic teams after a ship that sank on the return trip of its maiden voyage, but not Steve Weller. The late sports columnist for the Buffalo Evening News offered this assessment of the Canisius mascot in 1962:

“You can have your Chihuahuas, Piranhas, Horned Frogs and Iguanas. The best all-around mascot in the business today has to be the beast adopted by Canisius — the Golden Griffin.”

Buffalo was celebrating its centennial as a city in 1932 when a Canisius student wrote a stirring piece of historical fiction on La Salle’s launching of Le Griffon. The short story, called The Foot That Went Too Far, was a sensation on campus.

By commencement that year, the college began awarding its La Salle Medal. The mythical beast soon landed on the masthead of The Griffin, the student newspaper known previously as The Canisian. And in 1933 the college’s athletic teams came to be called Griffins.

La Salle was taught by Jesuits in his youth, and even joined the order, but left before taking final vows. The explorer would later be at odds with his old mentors over policy in New France. That the name of his ship should morph into the totem of a Jesuit college is one of history’s minor ironies.

Oh, and by the way, I know all this because the student who wrote that short story was my late father. He’d go on to teach English at Canisius for 42 years and write best-selling novels, award-winning poetry and erudite literary criticism, including book reviews for The News for 50 years.

And yet, for all of that, the idea that he had coaxed the griffin to campus from La Salle’s doomed ship always rated high on his list of lifetime achievements.

These days, though, I think of Le Griffon as more than inspiration for Golden Griffins. The vanished vessel remains a central player in Great Lakes history — Buffalo’s original tall ship, sailing still through the mists of time.

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