Museum at the Bottom of a Lake:

How the Shipwrecks of Lake Champlain Reveal the Maritime History of the United States

       Lake Champlain, which constitutes the eastern border of the Adirondack Park, has a rich naval and commercial maritime history. With over 300 shipwrecks at the bottom of this incredibly deep lake, the waters itself serve as a rich source of information about the history and development of the lake and the ships that traversed it. These ships represent a wide swath of naval and commercial history and originate from both the American and English navies. We have chosen three of these wrecks which we think represent important snapshots of American naval history as well as the commercial history of the lake.
         These three wrecks; The Continental Army Schooner Liberty, The Schooner Ticonderoga, and the Sailing Canal Boat General Butler, all played key roles in their times, just as Lake Champlain itself had a divisive role in American history. Because of its position on the eastern edge of the Adirondack Park, Lake Champlain served as a “back entry” to the colonies by the British during the Revolutionary War, an access point to Montreal and Quebec during the War of 1812, and a highway for the transportation of goods from the Adirondacks and Great Lakes to Quebec, Albany, New York City, and the Atlantic coast throughout history.
          The styles in which these three boats were built reflect the usefulness of Lake Champlain at the times they were built; 1775, 1814, and 1862, respectively. They also reflect the knowledge that the colonials had of the lake, which they used to their great advantage. This knowledge allowed the rebel forces to evade the British during both wars and maintain control of Lake Champlain despite facing a much larger and well-financed British Navy.
          The geographical location of the lake also provided a plethora of natural resources for boat construction. Although much of the major hull construction was done in Whitehall, NY or Vergennes, VT, they were then transferred north to Fort Ticonderoga, as the nearby old-growth forests of the eastern Adirondacks were the only reliable source of timber tall enough to form a strong mast. These readily accessible natural resources also allowed for rapid construction of the vessels, with one ship even reportedly being built in only nineteen days during preparation for the Battle of Valcour of the Revolutionary War. This accesibility to resources from the lake was greatly helpful to the American Cause during the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and was the primary reason for the economic boom of the Lake Champlain Valley in the 19th century.
          Once the lake was no longer a site of constant battle, the Champlain Canal was built to facilitate trade among New York City and the Lake Champlain Valley and Québec. This move, along with the building of the Erie Canal, necessitated the development of a new style of narrow, long, and shallow-bottomed boat rigged as a sailing vessel and towed canal boat to transport efficiently heavy goods such as iron and lumber from the Adirondacks to New York, the Great Lakes, and Québec through canals.
          Today, thanks to the naturally preservative properties of the lake, the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum has been able to document a natural, physical timeline of ship architecture from the roughly 300 shipwrecks at the bottom of Champlain. The lake is a glacial scar, making it very deep, so many shipwrecks are very deep as well. At these depths, the ships are not subject to disturbance from the surface, such as ice or currents. The lake water is naturally slightly basic, preventing corrosion to wood and metal by acid. Also, the lake is oligotrophic, or nutrient-poor, which prevents large algae blooms which, when they died, would sink and provide organic matter and energy to microbes living at the bottom of the lake that consume lignin in wood or corrode iron. The museum's research and education efforts provide an important window into an often overlooked chapter of United States history that spans nearly a century.