Stories From The Lake: Celebrations

06/29/09 7:49AM By Mitch Wertlieb
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AP Photo/Toby Talbot

(Mitch) The body of water we know today as Lake Champlain carries stories thousands of years old. On Mondays this month VPR has been tracing the lake's origins and exploration by Samuel de Champlain 400 years ago to bring you "Stories from the Lake".

Today, the final chapters in our series examine the lake as it transitioned from a water super-highway to a tourist destination and invaluable environmental resource.

I'm Mitch Wertlieb.

(Loons call) 

(Mitch) On a raw, cool rainy morning, a distinctive bird call is heard through the fog drifting across the surface of Lake Champlain. A pair of loons can just barely be seen in the distance through the mist, and Mike Winslow, a staff scientist with the Lake Champlain Committee, pauses to listen.

(Winslow) "You'll hear loons on Lake Champlain in the spring before they move to their nesting grounds inland and also in the fall when they come here before heading south. They'll congregate on Lake Champlain before heading south."

(Mitch) Winslow says at the turn of the 20th century, lake shipping was in decline, but the preceding years of commercial prosperity had left their mark on the region. While the economy boomed, unprecedented environmental problems were left in the wake:

(Winslow) "The ships that were plying the water here were often coal fired so they would just dump the excess coal overboard. So that's a form of pollution we don't have anymore."

(Mitch) Indeed, today's efforts to keep the lake clean were largely an afterthought in the early years of the 20th Century. People had more money and were more likely to travel. Lake Champlain was becoming a destination for recreation and tourism. And one event in particular put the region on the map.

In 1909 Lake Champlain became a focal point for national pride, and International celebration. If you think folks throughout the Champlain Valley are doing a lot this summer to commemorate the Quadricentennial of Samuel de Champlain's arrival, it's in many ways small potatoes compared to the fanfare that marked the Champlain Tercentenary. 

(Strum) "President William Howard Taft was here. It was a big deal."

(Mitch) That's Rich Strum, director of interpretation and education at Fort Ticonderoga.

(Strum) "There were a lot of speeches the Vermont governor was here, the New York governor was here. The ambassadors from the United Kingdom and France were here. There was an admiral from Japan who was here."

(Mitch) Strum is talking about just one of the events marking the Champlain 300th anniversary celebrations-the re-opening of Fort Ticonderoga to the public as an historical site.

Strum says it was one of the big events, but celebrations could be found everywhere:

(Strum) "During those 1909 tercentenary events, there were several days that were dedicated to different locations, Crown Point Day, Ticonderoga Day, Burlington day, and Ticonderoga day was July 6, 1909."

(Mitch) Songs were written, like this one performed by Linda Radtke and John Lincoln:

("From's history's page we know...")

(Mitch) And these were very much celebrations. In 1909, there wasn't much reflection on what Champlain's presence had meant for the region's native people, or the impact his arrival had on their destinies.

The Burlington Waterfront was one of the main sites of the Tercentenary celebrations.  SUNY Plattsburgh historian Kevin Dann says in 1909 the native peoples who had lived in the Champlain Valley for centuries were barely acknowledged as they watched the fanfare on the waterfront. Instead, the pomp and circumstance was meant to appeal-and send a message to-many of the region's most recent arrivals:

(Dann) "You had all these Greeks and Italians and poles and people from Europe who were working class who needed to be taught what it is to be an America. And so the main thing you see is kind of civic pride and civic education, the parades, the pageants the speeches were this grand civics lesson for the local populous to reinforce what the culture makers thought about themselves and then to communicate that to the people who were just arriving here and maybe first generation Americans.

(Mitch) It sounds like it wasn't about history so much and Champlain and what he did as an opportunity to show what America could become based on what happened there.

(Dann) Absolutely. Champlain was an extraordinary individual a great diplomat a great leader a bon vivant he came from this region in St. Onge in Southwestern France where he was full of an energy that matched really well with Americans ideas about themselves. 

(Mitch) A new American identity-the so-called ‘melting pot'-was emerging, and that was true of the Champlain Valley as well. The footprint of Champlain's native France was beginning to make more of an impression as trains made traveling south easier. French Canadians headed in that direction seeking jobs off the farms. Susan Ouelette is an historian at St. Michael's College.

(Ouelette) "What you find after the turn of the 20th century the French Canadians begin to be more accepted, they're not embraced, but they're more accepted. And in some cases French Canadians who  got more education, who became a little bit more sophisticated around the sort of middle class expectations of life and behavior and so on you would find that. By mid-20th century, you've got French Canadians who are beginning to serve in local government."

(Mitch) The Great Depression years meant hard times, but also marked a great leap forward in means of movement and transportation. The introduction of the Lake Champlain Bridge connecting Crown Point, New York and Chimney Point, Vermont in 1929 was a heralded event. It also spelled the definitive end of the Lake's role as primary transport route. Robert McCullough is with UVM's Historic Preservation program.

(McCullough) "The 1920s were a decade when automobile travel really exploded across the countryside. And Americans really began to explore by automobile and so the economic growth--roadside commerce--became a huge growth industry. That was one of the big factors. This was really the first vehicular bridge to link Vermont State with New York and New Hampshire." 

(Mitch) McCullough says the bridge's opening was cause for a huge celebration, with dignitaries on hand including Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was Governor of New York at the time. Crowds estimated in the tens of thousands showed up to help christen the new span. 

By the mid-1930's other bridges were added at the northern end of the lake. But McCullough says the Champlain Bridge drew the most attention-not only because of its interstate connections, but because the design by Charles Spofford was the first of its kind. Its graceful design would be copied in many major bridges. And it was also admired for the way it fit its historical surroundings:

(McCullough) "You can see the bridge from different locations as you approach from the Vermont side and the New York side, it appears and disappears and appears again, and that sort of heightens the process of crossing the bridge, so it really is a beautiful structure. 16:21 16:29 Photographers were taking lots of pictures and turning them into postcards."

(Mitch) The bridge, the rails, the canals on the lake, and the wars fought through the centuries for control of Lake Champlain are threads that all weave their way back to Samuel de Champlain's arrival in 1609.

As Susan Ouelette points out, French place names from the 19th century survive, and that's just one of Champlain's claims to the area.  

(Ouellette) "The land may not have lasted in terms of actual claims, but the cultural claim to the area definitely persist from that time."

I'm Mitch Wertlieb.

Later today during All Things Considered, VPR's Neal Charnoff wraps up the story with a look at Lake Champlain in the modern era, the lake's value as a prized tourist destination, and efforts to keep it healthy for present and future generations.

"Stories from the Lake" was produced by Melody Bodette and Lynne McCrea. The editor was Ross Sneyd. John van Hoesen was executive producer.  Our technical director was Chris Albertine. Professor of History at Champlain College, Willard Sterne Randall, has been our historical consultant. Our theme music is from the Spencer Lewis CD "Vermont Serenades." 

Thanks to volunteers Peter Biello, Eileen Kristiansen, Eugenia Saganich and Robin Twery for their help in the production.

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