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Lake Champlain Shipwrecks

03/22/2010 10:21PM ● By Anonymous

Lake Champlain, straddling the borders between Vermont, New York, and Quebec, is a gigantic lake. At 120 miles long, 12 miles wide, and reaching depths of several hundred feet, Lake Champlain is majestic, and for several centuries was a major industrial and commercial highway for the United States and Quebec. Today it is a source of tourism, excitement, and beauty. Bicyclists ride the trails along its shores, cliff divers jump from rocky heights into the blue waters, and boaters take in the sun and the views of the Green Mountains and the Adirondacks. Beneath the waters of Lake Champlain, beyond our eyesight, are more than 300 shipwrecks, varying from Revolutionary War battleships to modern powerboats and airplanes. In 1609, Samuel de Champlain, founder of Quebec City, sailed down the Richelieu River and into the lake, which is named after him. Bordered by the soaring Adirondacks on one side and the towering spine of the Green Mountains on the other, Champlain was struck by the awesome beauty of the lake and spent many years getting to know the natives of the region and exploring the lake’s many bays and inlets. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Burlington was a major commercial and industrial port says Arthur Cohn, executive director of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. “It was a major port because Lake Champlain is a north-south navigable waterway that was, essentially, an interstate during that time period, moving supplies between Montreal, Burlington, Albany, and New York City.” As a result, says Cohn, “with the connection in the early 19th century of the canals that now connected this interstate system to other navigable waterways, you can account for the high volume of traffic, and then, where you have a lot of traffic and activities, just like you have car accidents today, they had maritime accidents then. That has left us a representative collection of extraordinary shipwrecks in Burlington Harbor and beyond.” Lake Champlain is home to more than 300 shipwrecks, many of which offer fascinating glimpses into the past. Through the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum and the State of Vermont, experienced divers can visit nine of these sites, which are marked by buoys throughout the lake. Preserved by the cold, dark waters, these wrecks are representative of nearly every time period that the lake has borne witness to. There are extremely significant shipwrecks left over from major naval battles of the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, and the War of 1812. One of the most significant wrecks is that of the gunboat Spitfire. The gunboat, part of Benedict Arnold’s American fleet, was discovered during a survey of the lake conducted between 1996 and 2006 by the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, Middlebury College, and the University of Vermont. The survey examined the entire lake using sonar and discovered a vast array of shipwrecks, including the Spitfire. The Spitfire, which Cohn says is “one of the most significant shipwrecks that exists in the world today,” sank during the Battle of Valcour Island in 1776. “I think,” he says, “it is the connection to our national story, which makes it a very important American object, but it’s also got a direct connection to the British, to the Germans, and to the evolution of society back when none of the true visions of what America was going to become were well known or well established.” The wreck represents one of only a few known examples of America’s first military fleet, born in the early years of our fight for independence. It is, however, under attack today. Zebra mussels, an invasive species brought over from Eurasia, have been slowly overtaking the lake. Covering nearly every object on the lake floor, the mussels hasten the degradation of shipwrecks. One of the main tasks of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum is to work with the states of Vermont and New York to establish ways to combat the mussels and protect the wrecks. The invasion of zebra mussels is relatively well known because of public television ads and news stories covering the subject, but another threat lurks. Zebra mussels can live only at depths of less than 100 feet. Many of Lake Champlain’s historic shipwrecks exist at a much greater depth, which is why scientists and archaeologists are worried about the advance of quagga mussels, which can live in the greatest depths of Lake Champlain. Such a threat needs to be combated in order to preserve wrecks. While the location of the Spitfire is kept confidential to protect the site, the Lake Champlain Underwater Historic Preserve Program provides reasonable and appropriate access to nine of the lake’s historic shipwrecks. One of these is the Phoenix, the oldest known steamboat wreck in the world. The Phoenix sailed regularly between Burlington and Plattsburgh. But in 1819, it caught on fire and sank in the deep waters just outside of Burlington Harbor. The wreck, which today consists of a “very large hull,” can be visited by experienced divers. Dotted throughout Burlington Harbor are a huge number of wrecks, but none, according to Cohn, are more significant than the horse ferry found resting on the lake bottom. Used in the 18th and 19th centuries, horse ferries relied on the power of horses to cross the lake. “The horses,” says Cohn, “stood in a stationary location on a very large flywheel, or turntable, and would be commanded to walk in place, and as they walked, they would turn the turntable they were standing on. That transmission of power would be transferred to gears and shafts to power the boat across the lake.” The horse ferries were mainly used to cross the lake at places such as Crown Point, Basin Harbor, and Ticonderoga. The discovery of the horse ferry in Burlington’s Harbor was significant because the technology had virtually been forgotten about until archaeologists were able to study the wreck. As Cohn points out, “The horse ferries were able to cross the lake almost as quickly as traditional ferries at the same points carry cars across today.” The Phoenix, the horse ferry, and three other underwater preserve sites are directly available from Burlington Harbor. They are vivid gateways into Burlington’s past as a major port city and a reminder that the hundreds of boats that can be seen on the lake on a warm summer day float above pieces of American, French, and British history. People interested in visiting the wrecks can do so in two ways. Those with diver certification can register with the state of Vermont to visit the sites as long as they agree to leave no impact during their visit. Those who aren’t certified divers can utilize Storm Boarding or the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum’s boat and ROV program. These two boat and ROV programs take visitors out to the sites. A small, remotely operated submersible vehicle (a miniature submarine with a camera attached) is dropped into the water and guests can watch and see what the camera sees from inside their boat. This program allows people who have no diver certification to see the site in real time. Beyond visiting the sites on the lake, visitors to Burlington can also take a trip to the ECHO Lake Aquarium right on the lakefront in Burlington, or they can visit the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Vergennes, Vermont, to learn more about the diverse and fascinating history of Lake Champlain and its shipwrecks.

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