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May—June 1997 Lake Champlain's Newspaper Volume 6 Number 03

Sports Features News

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Lake Survey Released

Lake Champlain Maritime Museum

An historic photograph of the steam-powered tugboat U.S. La Vallee, which was located on the lake floor during the 1996 survey.

uring the summer of 1996, the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum (LCMM) initiated an ambitious new project to systematically examine the entire floor of Lake Champlain. Fueled by the recent infestation of zebra mussels, the survey, which was envisioned as taking decades to complete, has been radically accelerated. The intention of the survey is to locate and document shipwrecks and other submerged archaeological sites before they are covered or damaged by zebra mussels. In addition, the data being collected will also be utilized to add to our understanding of the geology and physical dynamics of Lake Champlain.

During the summer of 1996, the survey team systematically examined forty square miles of lake floor which has never been seen or imaged before. LCMM, in conjunction with its survey partners, is pleased to announce that during the course of the survey ten (10) previously unknown shipwrecks were discovered. During the 1996 survey five of the targets in divable depths were examined and filmed by the dive team. In addition, a vast amount of geological data was captured by computer and a selective post-processing project at Middlebury College has begun.

Results of the 1996 survey have recently been released in a 15 minute documentary which details why the museum launched this aggressive survey, the techniques that have been employed to survey and document these vessels, and underwater footage and discussion of the five new vessels already verified. This film is being shown at the Nautical Archaeology Center at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum as part of its interpretation of the lake survey.

Of the ten newly discovered shipwrecks, the five which have been investigated represent a wide range of nineteenth century commercial watercraft. A large wooden scow barge which was used to carry marine construction equipment around the lake to build the docks and breakwaters is one of the five sites identified. The second vessel is what we have defined as a “standard canal boat.” These were long, narrow commercial carriers whose hull design was dictated by the size of the canal locks. These canal boats made up the largest class of vessels ever to operate on Lake Champlain and had no independent means of propulsion. They were towed by either horses or mules on the canal, and by steam tug boats on the lake. A very well-preserved steam tug boat was another vessel located during the survey, found sitting upright on the bottom. This working tug has been identified as the U.S.Lavallee. It was built in 1880, and all of its steam machinery and component parts are still present. Two other vessels located are what we call “sailing canal sloops”. These vessels were designed to sail upon the lake but upon reaching the canal, were able to take on the function of a standard canal boat by raising their centerboards and lowering their masts. We speculate that both these vessels may have been built during the decade of the 1840’s and their careers appear to have been radically different. One looks as though it had a long, hard-working life, perhaps even being converted during its career from a sailing to a standard canal boat. Although its bow and stern are relatively intact, the sides have collapsed and the deck is gone. In contrast the other vessel is a perfectly preserved watercraft of the period. It appears to have gone down in a storm and, lying on the bottom today, contains every maritime element and personal object that a boat of this type would have contained. It is a proverbial time capsule of the mid- I9th century on Lake Champlain.

The new film is also being shared with school programs and historical societies. The film details plans for the 1997 continuation of the survey, scheduled to begin in early June. This season, in addition to the sonar survey component, a second diver documentation component will be in operation. Finally, at the end of the season, a Remote Operated Vehicle survey will be launched to examine all the deep water targets. Funding for the survey has come from the Lake Champlain Basin Program, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Park Service, the Lintilhac Foundation, and an anonymous Vermont foundation. Partnerships with Middlebury College, the University of Vermont, the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M, and the Vermont and New York Divisions for Historic Preservation, are indicative of the broad collaboration being utilized to complete this landmark survey.

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