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Kane: Sloop Island Wreck

04/04/12 7:55AM By Adam Kane
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(Intro)  With the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic looming on the watery horizon, commentator and Lake Champlain Maritime Museum Co-Director Adam Kane, is thinking about what lies at the bottom of cold waters closer to home.

(Kane) A century ago the world's unsinkable ship, the Titanic went down in the north Atlantic's icy waters.  We all know the story - its place in the popular imagination is nearly unrivaled.  With its tragic, wild descent into 13,000 feet of black water, it joined what is perhaps mankind's largest collection of artifacts from its antiquity.  Across the world's oceans, rivers and lakes there are spread shipwrecks numbering in the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands.  Each comes with a story revealing a piece of the human experience.

As the Atlantic was taking the Titanic, Lake Champlain was claiming its own.  Here, however, there were no headlines in the papers, no investigations, and certainly no movies.

We know Lake Champlain's victim only as the Sloop Island Canal Boat, referring to its nearest landmark.  For the last 100 years it has sat serenely in 90 feet of cold water in Charlotte.  On its last journey it was tied into a tow of a dozen other canal boats all pulled slowly by a tugboat.  These were more than boats, however, they were homes.  This was a community. Children's laundry was strung above the cabins, while the smell of baking bread hung in the air. 

It was a 20-year old boat carrying a load of Pennsylvania coal - a dirty cargo, but one that could always find a buyer.  Its crew was a husband and wife, and their child.  The boat's cabin was small at 200 square feet, but with its cook stove, beds and furniture it was a pleasant home. 

One night that coal proved too much for the boat's old timbers.  A seam opened up spilling coal into the onrushing waters of Lake Champlain.  The captain tried desperately to save his boat, home and livelihood, but as the water swiftly rose, he and his wife gathered up their child and a few of their most important possessions.  The boat could not be saved and they stepped from the deck of their own boat to that of their next door neighbor's.  The web of lines holding the tow together groaned as the swamped vessel pulled toward the lake bottom.  The neighboring boats listed perilously under the burden, but with three swift axe blows the lines were cut and the boat given to the lake. The family looked on as their home slipped from view.

The boat's transition from working vessel to shipwreck was swift, with a steep descent and a jarring impact on the clay bottom.  Trapped air from every crevice pushed hard for the surface, while the buoyant possessions in the cabin floated free. 

There were no headlines, not even a mention in the papers.  The sinking of a canal boat carrying only coal was not news.  We know this story only from exploring what remains of the boat itself and contents like the heel of a woman's shoe, scraps of a blue wool coat, gaming pieces.  Not titanic in its proportions, but still a human experience revealed.

Courtesy Lake Champlain Maritime Museum
Archaeological drawing of the Sloop Island Canal Boat

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