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Lake Champlain History

Lake Service: Sail and Steam
Capt. Gregg L. Trask

Samuel de Champlain's "discovery" in the summer of 1609 gave the French knowledge that the Native Americans had possessed for centuries. This was knowledge of a body of water that would become known as Lake Champlain.

This waterway had already had a fascinating past by the time that the Europeans arrived. It had been formed by glacier activity, had expanded and contracted, and had turned from salt water to fresh water. It had seen the creatures that lived in it die or adapt to these changes and had seen the coming of man.

Most know the history of Lake Champlain from the wars that were fought upon its waters and surrounding shores. Indeed, the Lakes history shows that it was incredibly important for those efforts. Samuel de Champlain himself brought war to the Lake on his first foray with (and for) the Native Americans at the south end. After that, the French and Indian War combatants utilized the Lake for offensive and withdrawal purposes. Then came the Revolutionary War and the notable efforts of Benedict Arnold and his fleet - a story that every student learns. The last major wartime incursion was in the War of 1812 when the English used the Lake to invade the young American land and were repulsed at the north end by Commodore Thomas MacDonough. Without question, the Lake has a storied past of wartime service.

What is not so well known is its commercial past. In the 1700s, the shores of Lake Champlain began to be settled. With this settlement came the need and desire for trade. Small vessels began to crisscross the Lake with goods, livestock and people. Many of these vessels were canoes or glorified rowboats and were organized by local farmers. One of these ferries is still functioning today, although with a considerably different vessel, in the form of the Ticonderoga Ferry, which has been operating since 1759.

As the years passed, more commerce potential was contemplated. In the 1760s and 1770s, sailing vessels began to ply the trade on the Lake. Bateaux, flat bottomed wooden boats, were particularly well used in the area due to their ability to carry a large payload. Sloops and schooners sailed north and south delivering products to the settlers of the growing towns along the shores. One of the first men to see the value of this commerce was Philip Skene who, while a Major in the English Army, served in the Champlain Valley. He settled at the south end of Lake Champlain in the area now known as Whitehall. In the summer of 1771, he had launched a sloop with works built of red cedar to sail to Canada with cargos of lumber. He also built barges to carry produce north. In 1775 he traveled to London and returned as the Lieutenant Governor of Ticonderoga and Crown Point. Sadly for him, those areas, and his home in Skenesborough, had been seized by patriot forces. At that time he also lost his new trading schooner, Liberty, when it was seized by the Green Mountain Boys and added to the American fleet. By the turn of the 19th century, many vessels were being produced for Lake service, some by imported shipwrights and some by settlers.

By 1814 more than twenty five large (over 25 ton displacement) were sailing across the Champlain waves with cargo. Trade with Canada was very important. Vessels traded raw materials from New York (such as iron and ash) and Vermont (such as maple sugar, flax, and meat) with Canadian ports. On the return trip, they were laden with finished goods from overseas such as rum, linens and woolens as well as tea, coffee and chocolate. Gideon King of Burlington, known as the "Admiral of the Lake" for his virtual monopoly of the carrier trade, increased his wealth greatly while serving as one of John Jacob Astor's agents during this time.

So important was this commerce that even the Embargo Acts of 1807 and 1808, which barred international trade, could not stop the Lake traffic. The Lake Champlain route became a smuggling route for European goods into the United States. In fact, in 1808, there are reports of a particularly difficult smuggler, Samuel J. Mott of Alburgh, and what are described as 7 desperate men as a crew. They used the large bateau Black Snake to smuggle goods. In August of that year, they had a battle with the revenue cutter Fly, under the command of Lieutenant Farrington, near Winooski on the Onion River. In that conflict, Lt. Farrington was wounded and two of his crew and one of the smugglers were killed. Earlier that year, in June, the Black Snake had been involved in another altercation near Windmill Point. According to Richard M. Strum in his book, Ticonderoga: Lake Champlain Steamboat, in 1809 goods valued at more than 75,000 English pounds passed illegally through the Lake, a sum equivalent to approximately $3.7 million in 1996 dollars. Even the War of 1812 didn't stop this illicit commercial traffic. In June of 1814, there is a report that smugglers were caught towing two spars toward Canada to be used to construct the British warship Confiance. Smuggling was a serious business on Lake Champlain.

The age of sail vessels was in full swing on the Lake when, in June of 1808, an odd, noisy vessel appeared. In 1807, Robert Fulton had put the first regularly operating steamer to work on the Hudson River. Two of the men that helped build that craft moved to Burlington and built the steamer Vermont. Just one year after Fulton, Lake Champlain became the waterway with the second regularly operating steamboat in the world. The age of steam had arrived on the Lake. The Vermont steamed a regular course from Whitehall to St. Johns with an optimistic schedule of one week. She could make 6 miles an hour when not challenged with one of her frequent mechanical break downs. The Vermont kept this schedule until October of 1815 when, while transiting the Richelieu River, she shook loose her connecting rod and threw it through her side which sank her near Ash Island.

One of the Vermont's owners (John Winan) decided to continue in Lake service and, with associates, incorporated as the Lake Champlain Steamboat Company. They began to build a new steamer at Otter Creek in Vergennes. They were interrupted by the War of 1812 when Commodore MacDonough commandeered the not quite completed hull and, not being a proponent of steam power, built her as the schooner rigged U.S.S. Ticonderoga.

After the war, the company was at it again. This time a larger boat was laid down and, with second hand engines from a Hudson River steamer, the Phoenix was put into service in 1815. The following year the engines salvaged from the Vermont were installed in a new vessel named Champlain until mechanical difficulties forced their replacement. These two vessels steamed from one end of the Lake to the other on opposite runs. Now Whitehall, NY and St Johns, Quebec were serviced by a vessel every Wednesday and Saturday and points between had the benefit of the transit between them. The cost to travel the whole way was $9 with board and lodging. The steamer Champlain burned at Whitehall in September of 1817. The Phoenix burned while underway in September of 1819 with a loss of life of 6 people. The Phoenix is now a Vermont State Underwater Historic Site lying in between 60 and 110 feet of water on the north face of the Colchester Shoal Reef. The fire in the Phoenix was rumored to have been started by a candle in the pantry but evidence exists that it may have been intentional by competing shipping companies.

The Champlain was replaced in 1818 by a craft double her size which the Lake Champlain Steamboat Company christened Congress. The Phoenix was replaced in 1820 by a vessel, Phoenix II, one third larger than Congress displacing 343 tons. By 1828, seven steamers were traveling Lake Champlain. With this many vessels, the competition for freight became fierce. It was during this period that Plattsburgh harbor became interesting to shippers. Until the 1820s vessels had stopped at Cumberland Head where the storehouses stood and a stage line ran. Operators began looking for ways to make their vessels better and faster. For instance, the Franklin was built in 1827 at St. Albans and displaced 350 tons with a speed of 10 miles per hour.

The Champlain Canal System, opened in 1823, brought more commercial opportunity to the Champlain Valley. Maritime shipping no longer needed to focus on only Canada as a route for goods. New York City became an outlet for cargo as well. In fact, the water route south reduced the travel time of cargo considerably so merchants were very pleased to use the maritime shippers. The age of steam would bring more vessels - and more competition - to 19th century Lake Champlain.

Regional Information
- Crown Point Telephone History
- Crown Point History
- Penfield Homestead
- First Congregational Church of Crown Point

Area Histories
- Lake Champlain History
- The War of 1812
- Ticonderoga 1804 - 2004
- Schroon Lake 1804 - 2004
- Town of Moriah

Area Places of Interest
- Lake Champlain Bikeways
- Lake Champlain Birding Trail
- Fishing in the Adirondacks
- Adirondack Sport Fishing
- Lake Champlain Maritime Museum
- Continuing Education

- Gold Pages Home Page
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