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Lake Champlain Shipwrecks

Updated on March 16, 2015

Lake Champlain's Hidden Treasures

Lake Champlain has been used as a water highway between Canada, to the north, and New York and New England, to the south for thousands of years; it's connected New York's Adirondack Mountains with Vermont's Green Mountains.

And it serves as the final resting place for warships and commercial and recreational vessels that were bested by Lake Champlain, sudden and severe weather or mechanical issues.

The picture at right is Ernie Haas' rendition of the shipwrecked gondola, 'Spitfire'. The Spitfire was one of Benedict Arnold's fleet of eight gondolas, or gunboats, used at the Battle of Valcour Island on October 11, 1776. The battle, although a loss for the patriots, was critical in slowing the British advance from Canada. As a result of the battle British forces elected to return to winter quarters in Canada until the following year. One of the Spitfire's sister ships, the Philadelphia, was recovered from the lake bottom and is now on display at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.

Lake Champlain is home to over 300 wrecks!

Here we'll take a look at some of the more historically significant or those that can be viewed by divers.

The Gunboat Philadelphia

The Gunboat Philadelphia
The Gunboat Philadelphia

The Battle of Valcour Island

Battle Of Valcour Island_watercolor
Battle Of Valcour Island_watercolor
The Gondola Philadelphia and the Battle of Lake Champlain (S. N. Arch)
The Gondola Philadelphia and the Battle of Lake Champlain (S. N. Arch)

This book gives an account of the efforts of both sides to try to win control of Lake Champlain.

At the Battle for Valcour Island, British and Patriot forces fought valiantly. The Philadelphia and others were lost, and the Patriot forces escaped under the cover of nightfall. The battle, however, stalled the British long enough to delay the fight until next year.

 
Benedict Arnold's Navy: The Ragtag Fleet That Lost the Battle of Lake Champlain but Won the American Revolution
Benedict Arnold's Navy: The Ragtag Fleet That Lost the Battle of Lake Champlain but Won the American Revolution

A dramatic chronicle of the desperate battle and the extraordinary events that occurred on the American Revolution's critical northern front.

This captivating narrative shows how Benedict Arnold's fearless leadership against staggering odds in a northern wilderness secured for America the independence that he would later try to betray.

 

Revolutionary War Shipwrecks

The Battle of Valcour Bay, also known as the Battle of Valcour Island, occurred on Lake Champlain October 11, 1776. The main battle was in a narrow strait between Valcour Island and the New York shore. It is one of the first naval battles of the American Revolution, and one of the first actions for the U.S. Navy. Although most of the American fleet, commanded by Benedict Arnold were captured or sunk by General Guy Carleton's British force, the end result of the American defense of Lake Champlain prevented the British from reaching the Hudson River valley for a year.

After the costly failed attack on Quebec the Continental Army retreated to Fort Ticonderoga, Mount Independence and Fort Crown Point in June 1776. Carleton had a force of 9,000 men at Fort Saint-Jean, but needed ships to carry them up the lake. The retreating Americans either took or destroyed most of the ships on the lake. In October the British fleet was ready to launch and greatly outgunned the American fleet.

Arnold's navy drew the British fleet into a carefully chosen position that limited their advantages of firepower. In the battle many of the American ships were severely damaged or sunk. At night, however, Arnold slipped past the British fleet, retreating toward Crown Point and Ticonderoga. Bad weather slowed the retreat, and more ships were captured or grounded and burned. When he reached Crown Point, Arnold burned the fort's buildings and retreated to Ticonderoga.

In 1997 the U.S.S. Spitfire was located. Its underwater resting place is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The War of 1812 videos

Battle of Lake Champlain

Conquered into Liberty: Two Centuries of Battles along the Great Warpath that Made the American Way of War
Conquered into Liberty: Two Centuries of Battles along the Great Warpath that Made the American Way of War

In Conquered into Liberty, Cohen describes how five peoples-the British, French, Americans, Canadians, and Indians-fought over the key to the North American continent: the corridor running from Albany to Montreal dominated by the Champlain valley and known to Native Americans as the "Great Warpath." He reveals how conflict along these two hundred miles of lake, river, and woodland shaped the country's military values, practices, and institutions.

 

War of 1812 Shipwrecks - The Battle of Plattsburgh Bay

Battle of Plattsburgh Bay
Battle of Plattsburgh Bay
The Battles at Plattsburgh: September 11, 1814
The Battles at Plattsburgh: September 11, 1814

Retells the battles at Plattsburgh from original source documents.

 

On September 11, 1814 a British fleet sailed from Canada up Lake Champlain intent on seizing control of the lake and securing a water highway for troops and supplies. They were met in Plattsburgh Bay by an American naval squadron commanded by Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough in the Battle of Plattsburgh Bay . This final and failed attempt at a British invasion of the northern states removed any British leverage for territorial gain or control of the Great Lakes .

At the end of the War of 1812, the U.S. Navy's Lake Champlain squadron, along with the captured British ships from the Battle of Plattsburgh Bay, were sailed to Whitehall, New York at the southern end of Lake Champlain. By 1815 the squadron was composed of five larger vessels: the captured frigate- formerly H.M.S. Confiance, the U.S.S. Saratoga, the brig U.S.S. Eagle, the schooner U.S.S. Ticonderoga, and the captured brig- formerly H.M.S. Linnet, ten gunboats and five sloops.

Four of the older gunboats and the sloops were sold to be used for commercial shipping. Five of the gunboats were sunk in the narrow channel below Whitehall for preservation; one gunboat, Allen, was retained for several years of service after the war. The five larger warships were stripped of equipment, and the empty hulls were anchored along the main channel at Whitehall. Soon the vessels were rotting and in 1820 the Navy moved them a mile north of Whitehall to the Poultney River where they sank to the bottom and were eventually sold for salvage.

Ticonderoga hull in Whitehall, NY
Ticonderoga hull in Whitehall, NY
War of 1812: Lake Champlain and the New England Coast, Illustrated.
War of 1812: Lake Champlain and the New England Coast, Illustrated.

A view of the battles on Lake Champlain & the New England Coast during the War of 1812.

 

U.S.S. Ticonderoga

In 1814 Ticonderoga was being built as a steamboat in Vergennes, Vermont for the Lake Champlain Steamboat Company, when the U. S. Navy purchased her and fitted her out as a schooner. The 120' craft had a beam of about 26' mounted with 17 guns. She saw service as part of the small fleet being hastily constructed for the defense of Lake Champlain. The fleet, under the command of Lieutenant Thomas Macdonough, commander of the United States Naval Squadron on Lake Champlain was part of a naval arms race taking place at opposite ends of the lake.

On September 11, 1814 the two fleets clashed in Cumberland Bay near Plattsburgh, New York. After the Battle of Plattsburgh Bay, the victorious American fleet, with their captured prizes, sailed up the lake to Whitehall, New York (birthplace of the U.S. Navy). In Whitehall the ships were stripped of guns, masts, sails, and naval supplies. As peace came to the Champlain Valley, some of the fleet were sold for commercial shipping, others were scuttled and some were abandoned in the Poultney River.

It was here that Ticonderoga was recovered in 1958 by the Town of Whitehall, New York as part of the town's bicentenniel celebration. They selected a hull and went to work with bulldozers, dynamite and saws to dismantle the wreck. Then it was trucked into Whitehall and put on display near the Skenesboro Museum. It was later measured and determined that it was the schooner Ticonderoga. It can still be seen today at this location, although there are calls to create a climate-controlled environment to protect what is left of this relic.

Read more at: battle-of-plattsburgh-relic-stored-in-shed

U.S.S. Eagle

 

Watercolor by Edward Tufnell, depicting the Battle of Lake Champlain (from L-R) USS Saratoga, HMS Confiance, USS Eagle
Watercolor by Edward Tufnell, depicting the Battle of Lake Champlain (from L-R) USS Saratoga, HMS Confiance, USS Eagle
The Eagle: An American Brig on Lake Champlain During the War of 1812
The Eagle: An American Brig on Lake Champlain During the War of 1812

Provides a detailed account of this vessel in the War of 1812, especially at the Battle of Plattsburgh

 

U.S.S. Allen

 

Books about The War of 1812 on Lake Champlain

The War of 1812 in the Champlain Valley (New York State Series)
The War of 1812 in the Champlain Valley (New York State Series)

The War of 1812 in the Champlain Valley helps to understand the Plattsburgh campaign, considered a critical battle in the war.

 
Poultney River
Poultney River

Commercial Shipwrecks

S.S. Champlain - aground
S.S. Champlain - aground

With the end of the War of 1812 peace came to Lake Champlain, and peace brought increased commerce. Trade thrived and towns like Burlington, Vermont and Essex, New York were among the busiest port cities in the new country.

After the opening of the Champlain Canal in 1832 trade that had been brisk was now booming as the new canal opened up trade with Albany, New York and via the Hudson River - the whole world. Canada again became an important trade partner and goods could move easily from New York City to Montreal and Quebec.

With all of the water traffic on the lake, there were bound to be accidents. Lighthouses were built in the most dangerous locations, but ships still ran aground, or were plagued with fire or rough weather on the lake.

Diving The General Butler

This video features a dive to the shipwreck of the General Butler in Lake Champlain near Burlington, VT. In 1876 the General Butler sank after it crashed into the breakwater at Burlington Harbor. Built in Essex, New York in 1862, the 88' long, 14' wide schooner-rigged Butler was a Lake Champlain sailing canal boat. These ships were specially designed for sailing on the lake and then travelling though the Champlain Canal to the Hudson River once their masts were removed and centerboards raised.

Under the command of her owner, Capt. William Montgomery of Isle La Motte on December 9, 1876 when a powerful winter gale struck; the Butler's steering mechanism broke and the schooner crashed headlong into the breakwater. The ship sank into the 40' of water where she now rests.

The wreck is located 75 yards west of the southern end of the Burlington breakwater (44°28.23N, 73°13.70W) and can be dived by beginning divers, but buoyancy should be carefully controlled and extra care taken at the stern to avoid damaging the extremely fragile rudder.

DO NOT PENETRATE THE WRECK

This video features a dive of the shipwreck of the General Butler in Lake Champlain

Have you visited any of Lake Champlain's Shipwrecks? - Do you have a story to share about a shipwreck on Lake Champlain?

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      jim 2 years ago

      How do you go about diving these wrecks?