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The Wreck of the Steamer-turned-Schooner, Water Witch

(click on  image for full-size picture)

slide  01.JPG (138037 bytes) Lake Champlain was one of the earliest American waterways to enjoy the advantages of steam propulsion. The Steamer Vermont began service on the lake in 1809, just two years after Robert Fulton’s successful experiment with a steam-powered ship on the Hudson River. Vermont was followed by many more steamers belonging to various companies and individuals. By the early 1830s competition between steamers on the lake’s waters was growing fierce.
In 1832 a famous steamship captain on the lake, Jehaziel Sherman, completed yet another steamboat at Fort Cassin (near Vergennes, Vermont). The new steamer, named Water Witch, was 80 feet (24.38 m) in length and 17 feet (5.18 m) in beam. Sherman entered into direct competition with the leading steamboat company on the lake, the Champlain Transportation Company (CTC), running Water Witch just ahead of the CTC’s boats, undercutting their fares, and stealing the CTC’s passengers. All of this, apparently, was in a bid to force the CTC to make Sherman a director and to buy his boat from him. It worked: in 1835 the CTC paid Sherman $10,000 for Water Witch and made a permanent place for him on its board of directors. slide  02.JPG (174159 bytes)
slide  03.JPG (193700 bytes) The CTC already had plenty of steamers in service, and so the Water Witch’s engine and boiler were removed and the vessel was converted over to a merchant schooner. Water Witch plied the lake as a cargo vessel for the next thirty years.
On April 26, 1866, Water Witch was bound down the lake with a load of iron ore when it was overtaken by a squall not far from the mouth of Otter Creek. In a matter of seconds the schooner was blown over, the hold filled, and the vessel went to the bottom. The captain, his wife, and two of their children were rescued along with the crew by a passing sloop, but the captain’s infant daughter went down in the schooner’s after cabin. slide  04.JPG (233175 bytes)
slide 05.JPG (217596 bytes) The wreck of the Water Witch was discovered in 1977 by Canadian diver Derek Grout. A preliminary inspection of the wreck was carried out in 1990 by the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum and the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation. The schooner was found to be nearly intact. The foremast had fallen to the starboard side, and the mainmast was missing, but hull, its equipment, and its cargo of iron ore were still complete.
We returned to the wreck in 1993 to resume our study of the steamer-turned-schooner’s design, construction, and appearance. The project was jointly sponsored by the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, Texas A&M University, the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation, the Lake Champlain Basin Program, and Mr. Ray H. Siegfried II. All dives were staged from Captain Fred Fayette’s research vessel Neptune. slide  06.JPG (171822 bytes)
slide  07.JPG (157640 bytes) Project co-director Dr. Kevin Crisman (left) and colleague Dr. Fred Hocker (right) prepare for a dive on Water Witch.
Project co-director Arthur Cohn descends on the wreck with his video camera. slide  08.JPG (99649 bytes)
slide  09.JPG (96056 bytes) The wooden windlass in the bow of the Water Witch. Years of reeling in anchor chain have severely worn the wooden drums of the windlass.
The crosstrees at the top of the foremast lie in the mud off the starboard side of the wreck slide  10.JPG (171840 bytes)
slide  11.JPG (114387 bytes) One of the stern cabin windows in the transom of the Water Witch.
Plan and profile views of the Water Witch, reconstructed from measurements of the hull. The schooner had a very shallow draft, and probably drew no more than four feet of water even when fully laden with iron ore. The centerboard located between the two cargo hatches was added to the vessel when it was converted from a steamer. Despite Water Witch’s steamboat beginnings, its design closely resembles typical lake schooners and sloops of the early to mid nineteenth century. slide  12.JPG (86881 bytes)

To learn more about this wreck see:

steamboats.JPG (80631 bytes) Ogden Ross. The Steamboats of Lake Champlain, 1809 to 1930. With new essays by Arthur Cohn. Reprint of 1930 edition by Vermont Heritage Press, 1997.

Kevin Crisman. "Relics of the Revolution and a Schooner Called Water Witch," The INA Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 4, Winter, 1993.

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