Shipwrecks of Lake Champlain

Although the majority of ships using Burlington and the Lake Champlain basin are no longer in service, we are still able to study various shipwrecks of the Lake Champlain basin and the significance of these wrecks culturally and historically. By studying these ships that have been abandoned throughout various locations in the basin, we are able to discover what types of materials and resources were on these boats and the usefulness that these items had.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, Burlington was a major commercial and industrial port. 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 from Montreal to places in Vermont and New York. With the demand being high to ship these goods from Montreal to various locations in Vermont and New York, there were a high number of ships. The higher number of ships that used the waterway, the greater number of accidents occurred. This has left us with a representative collection of extraordinary shipwrecks in the Burlington Harbor and beyond. [iii]

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. [i]

The schooner Water Witch is one of the oldest fully intact commercial sailing ships to be located underwater in the United States. The vessel lies on the bottom of Lake Champlain between New York and Vermont. In 1977, the schooner Water Witch was discovered by Derek Grout, a Canadian diver, who literally bumped into the shipwreck while he was being towed underwater. (Kennard, 2001) 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. [ii] 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. [iii]


[i]  & [ii] Lake Champlain Maritime Museum: Underwater Historic Preserves
[iii] Lake Champlain Shipwrecks: Best Of Burlington


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