The Canal Boat Wrecks of Lake Champlain

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slide 01.JPG (154320 bytes) 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. slide 02.JPG (195775 bytes)
slide 03.JPG (142116 bytes) 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. slide 04.jpg (114740 bytes)
slide 05.JPG (110850 bytes) 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. slide 06.JPG (100668 bytes)
slide 07.JPG (107279 bytes) In recent years an effort has been made to document the remains of Lake Champlain’s 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. slide 08.JPG (93527 bytes)
slide 09.JPG (156994 bytes) 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 Laroque’s boat at the start of a day’s 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. slide 10.JPG (218778 bytes)
slide 11.JPG (128224 bytes) 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. slide 12.JPG (139068 bytes)
slide 13.JPG (97006 bytes) 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. slide 14.JPG (156472 bytes)
slide 15.JPG (71232 bytes) O. J. Walker’s 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 Champlain’s canal boat wrecks? See:

vermhist.JPG (136635 bytes) Arthur Cohn and Marshall True. "The Wreck of the General Butler and the Mystery of Lake Champlain’s 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 Archaeology, 1996.

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