The Wreck of the
Steamer-turned-Schooner, Water Witch
(click on image for full-size picture)
||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 Fultons 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
lakes 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 CTCs
boats, undercutting their fares, and stealing the CTCs 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.
||The CTC already had plenty of steamers in service, and so the Water
Witchs 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
|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 captains infant daughter went down in the schooners
||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-schooners 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 Fayettes research vessel Neptune.
||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.
||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
||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
Witchs steamboat beginnings, its design closely resembles typical lake schooners
and sloops of the early to mid nineteenth century.
To learn more about this wreck see:
||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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