Stories from the Lake: A Water Highway

06/22/09 7:49AM By Mitch Wertlieb
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AP Photo/Alden Pellett

(Host) Contact with native peoples, conflict with European superpowers, and the birth of a new nation...since Samuel de Champlain's arrival in 1609 the lake he named for himself tells a 400-year tale of world-changing events.

On Mondays this month we're exploring Lake Champlain's history and lasting influence on our region. Today, VPR's Mitch Wertlieb continues our series as the lake enters its golden age of trade and economic growth. 

(Mitch) After the war for Independence, what was once an arena of conflict became instead a bustling panorama of commerce and settlement.

Art Cohn of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum says by 1783 people migrated into the Champlain Valley to take full advantage of what the lake had to offer.

(Cohn) "And so you begin to see sloops and schooners, you begin to see cross-lake ferries, you begin to see inns on the lake, to accommodate people, basin harbor, right around the corner is one of the earliest places where that phenomenon began to take place."

(Mitch) For the next 29 years Lake Champlain was the water highway in the region. Trade was brisk, profits were plentiful, but competition for those profits led to renewed hostilities with a familiar foe. Again, Art Cohn:

(Cohn)"It's a classic history repeating itself, the British and the Americans have never really decided that they're going to find peaceful co-existence after the revolution, the War of 1812 breaks out and the parallel here is that once again, both sides recognized that the lake was strategically important, it was an invasion route, whoever controlled it controlled the fortunes of war."

(Mitch) Hostilities were fueled initially by British impressments, or seizures, of American sailors and their cargo. U.S.  President James Madison requested a declaration of war against the British, and Congress obliged in 1812.

Britain still had the world's most powerful Navy, and Historian Russell Bellico says the Americans knew that control of Lake Champlain was once again going to be critical.

(Bellico) "One of the first actions was to send Thomas McDonough, who commanded some gun boats in Portland, Maine, overland to Lake Champlain to take command of two small gun boats and some commercial vessels that were purchased by the navy for military use, and so that began the small navy on Lake Champlain." 

(Mitch) The War of 1812 continued into the summer of the following year as the British fought battles in Plattsburgh, Swanton, and Burlington. Bellico says the Americans had their work cut out for them, and a lot of that work took place in and around the Champlain Valley:

(Bellico) "The Americans had set up cannons on the shores of Burlington and were able to repel the British war ships, but they were involved in this. And at the same time... McDonough was repairing and converting some more war ships in Burlington harbor.  The next year, however, he asked for more war ships and was granted a number of vessels which were built, actually in Vergennes.  A hundred and forty-three foot Saratoga, I mean these were very large ships for a lake."

(Mitch) The fleet built in Vergennes, says Art Cohn, would play a crucial role. In 1814 the fleet engaged the British in the Battle of Plattsburgh:

(Cohn) "And this battle ended with a decisive American victory, which not only brought the lake into firm American control, but helped to bring the wider war of 1812 to a negotiated conclusion."

(Mitch) With peace restored to the Champlain Valley region, the business of business began again in earnest, and commerce came into full blossom with the introduction of the Champlain Canal in 1823, connecting the southern part of the lake to the Hudson River.

New types of narrow ships were built specifically to get through the canal's shallow channels, low bridges, and locks. An example of one of these canal schooners has been built at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum.

(Tour guide) Welcome to the Lois McClure...

The Traders could now run all types of goods and materials quickly and inexpensively for direct sale to merchants all along the eastern seaboard.

Elsa Gilbertson directs the historical site at Mount Independence and says the lake around this time was one big maritime rush hour:

(Gilbertson) "When you think of all the traffic that was coming up and down on the lake, the canal boats and then the steam ships, I just wonder if they had a traffic cop or something here because it really must have been congested coming through this point land."

(Mitch) Art Cohn of the Maritime Museum says it's no exaggeration to say that the opening of the Lake Champlain and Erie Canals had as much impact on early 19th century society as the Internet has on ours today:

(Cohn) "It opened up the region to an extraordinary period of economic growth, both boat building, community building lighthouses, breakwaters. The Burlington breakwater that we see today is part of that period, so there are a lot of clues that are still existent and available to people about what was going on back then and a reflection on that dynamic economic growth."

(Mitch) And with economic growth came a population explosion. St. Michael's College history professor Susan Ouelette says the trickle of French-Canadians that came to the region in the early part of the 19th century became a flood by mid-century. The results can be seen today throughout Vermont cities and towns:

(Ouelette) "Winooski, of course, Burlington, of course, Plattsburgh,St. Albans, any of the manufacturing centers, Vergennes, going south in Vermont, Manchester, Rutland most of the sort of areas where water power married up with mills any of those places you're going to find little Canadas."

(Mitch) But the golden age of shipping and commerce dependent on the lake would eventually be supplanted by the rise of the rails. Trains provided even faster delivery of commodities than boats could, but says Russell Bellico, the lake held its own even during that time of unprecedented technological change:

(Bellico) "Right into the twentieth century canal boats were still competitive, because, for bulk commodities.  They were still cheapest per ton mile than railroads.   So railroads didn't instantly supplant the canal boats, the canal boats went right into the 1920s  for some commodities, particularly bringing in iron ore from the Port Henry area, things of this sort."

Still, Lake Champlain's role as the economic engine of the valley would never be quite the same as transportation moved to land.

I'm Mitch Wertlieb.

Join us next week for the final part of our series, as we examine the lake's transformation from super-highway to scenic and historic tourist destination.

And later today on All Things Considered, join VPR's Neal Charnoff as he shines a light on the towns established during the 19th century and what life was like for the people who lived there.

Music in today's program was recorded by Matthew Witten, the Champlain troubadour.  

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



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