The Canal Boat
Wrecks of Lake Champlain
(click on image for full-size picture)
||Lake Champlain has a long history of canaling, a history that started with the
completion of the 60-mile (96.5 km) Champlain Canal in 1825. This canal linked the upper
Hudson River at Troy, New York with the southern end of Lake Champlain at Whitehall, New
York. The canal lives on today as part of the New York State Barge Canal system. This
recent photo shows Lock 12 at Whitehall.
|Remnants of the earlier locks and channels from the Champlain Canal can also be found
in the woods and fields of upstate New York.
||During the heyday of the Champlain Canal, between 1823 and the early twentieth
century, thousands of canal boats passed between Lake Champlain and the Hudson River,
transporting raw materials and finished products, linking the farmers and merchants of the
Champlain Valley with the rest of the world. Canal boats were by far the most common type
of working craft to ply the waters of Lake Champlain. Here three standard (towed) canal
boats lie alongside the entrance to the locks at Whitehall. These boxy vessels efficiently
and inexpensively transported heavy cargoes, and at the same time served as home for canal
boatmen and their families.
|Standard canal boats had to be towed to their destinations, either by mules on the
canals or by steamers on lakes and rivers; here a raft of canal boats passes
down the lake in tow behind a tugboat.
||Because they traveled the lake in huge numbers, because they wore out like any other
kind of wooden vessel, and because they were helpless in all kinds of rough weather, canal
boats sank to the bottom of the lake in great numbers. They are the most common type of
wreck encountered during surveys of the lake bottom.
|The wreck of yet another luckless canal boat, sunk with a cargo of cut stone blocks
off Diamond Island. Despite their ubiquity (or perhaps because of it), the canal boat
wrecks of Lake Champlain have undergone only limited archaeological study.
||In recent years an effort has been made to document the remains of Lake
Champlains canal boats and canal era, especially since the invasion of zebra mussels
threatens to obscure many details on these wrecks. Here Dr. Paul Johnston, Curator of
Transportation at the Smithsonian Institution, records the bow construction of a canal
boat sunk near Potash Point on the Vermont shore.
|A sketch of the Potash Point Wreck. This canal boat, carrying a load of stone, hit the
bottom hard and literally burst apart at the seams.
||During the summer of 1997 the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum and the Institute of
Nautical Archaeology collaborated in the study of two canal boat wrecks sunk off the New
York shore. Here members of the survey team loads gear onto Captain Pierre Laroques
boat at the start of a days work.
|The wreck of a standard canal boat in 70 feet (21.3 m) of water near Port Kent, New
York. This wreck, recorded in 1997, went to the bottom empty, but evidence suggests the
sinking was accidental rather than the intentional scuttling of an old vessel.
||Lake Champlain was also home to a hybrid form of canal boat, the sailing canal
boat, a type of vessel that could pass through the locks and channels of the
Champlain Canal and then sail the waters of the lake. Sailing was accomplished by stepping
one or two masts in boxes (called tabernacles) on deck, and by lowering a
centerboard through the bottom of the hull. The photograph shows a canal schooner, a
version built after the enlargement of the canal locks in 1862.
|This photo shows a canal schooner tied up along the waterfront of Plattsburgh, New
York, around the turn of the century.
||The wreck of a sloop-rigged sailing canal boat in Cumberland Bay, New York, recorded
in 1997. This vessel was built in a frame-less manner, with the sides composed of thick
planks bolted together edge-to-edge by long iron rods. It appears to have worn out after a
long career and was then purposely scuttled, but this is not certain. This type of
sloop-rigged canal sloop was common in the period between 1840 and 1862.
|The wreck of the 88-foot-long (26.8 m) canal schooner O. J. Walker in
Burlington Bay, Vermont. Walker was built in 1862 and enjoyed a long career on the
lake. It sank in 1895 while carrying a load of bricks and drain tile to Burlington. Both
masts and several spars are still present on the wreck, but the bricks and tile were
scattered about during the sinking.
||O. J. Walkers wheel, of a type called a shin cracker due to
its tendency to whack the helmsman across shins when sailing in rough weather.
Want to read more about Lake Champlains canal boat wrecks?
||Arthur Cohn and Marshall True. "The Wreck of the General Butler and the
Mystery of Lake Champlains Sailing Canal Boats," Vermont History, Vol.
1, No. 1, 1992.
Joseph Cozzi. "The North Beach Wreck: A Solid Wall of Timber," The INA Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 2, 1992.
Joseph Cozzi. "The Lake Champlain Sailing Canal Boat," Underwater
Archaeology, Stephen R. James, Jr. and Camille Stanley, eds., Society for Historical
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