Stories from the Lake: Commerce

06/22/09 5:20PM Neal Charnoff, Lynne McCrea
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VPR/Lynne McCrea
Ferry service between Shoreham, Vermont and Ticonderoga, New York began in 1759.
(Charnoff)  It's All Things Considered on Vermont Public Radio, I'm Neal Charnoff.

Next month marks the quadricentennial of Samuel de Champlain's arrival on the lake that bears his name.

Today, our series "Stories From the Lake" looks at how the growth of transportation at the turn of the 20th century connected the people of Vermont, New York and Canada.

(Shoreham Ferry)   

We're traveling across Lake Champlain on the Fort Ticonderoga Ferry, which connects Shoreham, Vermont with Ticonderoga, New York.  

Not only does the ferry connect the two states, it serves as a bridge between travelers in the 21st century and those of the 18th

Utilizing a variety of watercraft, this ferry route has been in service  since 1759, making it one of the oldest surviving business operations in the country. 

The ease of transport on Lake Champlain was a major reason for growth along its shores.

Willard Sterne Randall is a professor of history at Champlain College. 

He says Lake Champlain enabled trade and commerce in the North Country. 

(Randall) The combination of rivers flowing into the lake and then the cheap easy transportation in good weather at least north to Canada, or over to the other side of the lake there was a lot of commerce with New York by ship, all the way down into the 20th century. 

Until the early 19th century, wind-powered vessels were the main method of carrying goods across the lake.

But the arrival of steam powered transportation forever changed the pace of commerce.

Rich Strum is the author of a book about the Ticonderoga, one of three 19th century steamships that serviced  Lake Champlain. 


Strum is giving a tour of the Ticonderoga, which now rests on the grounds of the Shelburne Musuem.

Strum says that while today we don't think of steamships as being fast modes of operation, they revolutionized not only the speed of travel on the lake, but the direction.  Sailors no longer had to rely on wind direction to get from point A to point B. 

(Strum)  After steamboats and again when the Champlain Canal opens in 1823, it really helps to reorient trade southward and really connects this part of upstate New York with the rest of the United States.

Steamships were first put into use on Lake Champlain in 1809, just two years after their debut on the Hudson River. 

The impact on commerce was immediate, triggering the growth of Burlington as a major water port. 

(Strum)  You're starting to be able to get goods from other parts of the country, they come into the Champlain Valley, and then from the lake they work their way inland by land transportation, but it does make more things available throughout not just on the communities right on the lake. 

For a time, commerce on the lake was seasonal, with winter time travel limited to sleighs on the frozen surface of that lake. 

(Strum) That really switches when the railroads start coming in the middle of the century. Railroads enable commerce to continue throughout the year, and not be dependent on whether or not the lake is available for boats.

(Banjo music)

Railroads arrived in Whitehall, New York in the 1850's, and by the 1870's the railroad stretched up the western shore of the lake, with Plattsburgh becoming the northern terminus. 

By this time, commerce on the lake was having a calming influence on territorial conflict. 

Rich Strum says that making money trumped making war.     

(Strum)  In the 19th century Lake Champlain serves much more as a unifier than a divider of New York and Vermont and Quebec, because the water is so crucial for transporting people and materials 

In fact, what had once been a vehicle for strategic battle was now also a romantic enabler. 

(Strum)  There were a lot of cross-lake marriages, especially in the lower part of the lake where it's not quite so wide.  A farmer in Bridport might take a wife from a farm family in Crown Point, and actually some of that still happens today. 

The ease of travel on and around the lake also invited another influence on the Champlain Valley...French-Canadians, who were the figurative descendants of Samuel De Champlain, and the settlements that he originally encouraged. 

Susan Ouelette is a professor of history at St. Michael's College. 

According to Ouelette,  the first wave of Canadian settlers in the Champlain Valley were refugees from the Revolutionary War.  

The coming of the railroads meant that friends and family could now easily travel from Montreal. 

(French-Canadian music)

Ouellette says that French-Canadians were hearing about the mills and lumber camps, and many came south for the work. 

(Ouelette)  And so there's not this really solid barrier that we think of. And in fact you have people who stay here for awhile and then move back, or their children might come back down here.

Ouelette says that the French-Canadian population began to outnumber Americans.

(Ouelette) In the 19th century, especially the late 19th century, I would say you would find somewhere's in the neighborhood of 60% of the population that's either French Canadian born, or French Canadian and born here.

While the French-Canadian influence was rising, there was one group who were not included in this period's growth...the native Abenaki Indians. 

Fred Wiseman is a professor of Humanities at Johnson State College. He specializes in Abenaki history and culture.

According to Wiseman, this was a period of social decline for the Abenaki. 

(Wiseman)  Probably from the 1790's through the 1930's, the Vermont Abenakis were basically required to go into hiding.

Wiseman says that Abenakis were only accepted as healers, guides or craftspeople, but were otherwise considered an ethnic threat.

(Wiseman)  People traveled on snowshoes made by Abenakis, they stored their goods in baskets made by Abenakis, they traveled by birchbark canoes often made by Abenakis, and it was ok to be Indian as long as you made these craft goods. 

In the meantime, the growing economy continued to have a strong impact on Lake Champlain. An expanding middle class would fuel the rise of tourism, and families would travel the lake aboard the Ticonderoga. 

We'll here more about that next Monday, when our series "Stories from The Lake" continues. 

Our entire series and all of VPR's Champlain 400 programming can be found at

For VPR news, I'm Neal Charnoff.

Our historical consultant has been Willard Sterne Randall, professor of history at Champlain College.



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