Bubbles surfaced as two sleek black forms emerged from Lake Champlain. Wetsuit-clad Grace Tsai raised her arms with a victorious splash, clipboard in hand. She and fellow diver Carrigan Miller hit the shores of Shelburne Bay with exactly the information they went down into its murky depths to find.
“We were recording the stringers which are the longitudinal timbers that go along steamboats,” Tsai said. “We were recording the bolts, how thick they were, and general dimension.”
Sunken steamboats rest in Shelburne Bay off of General Greene Road, once known as the Shelburne Shipyard. They were built there, and after their time of service, retired in place. Now a team of students are diving deep to help their hidden data surface.
“Steamboats were such a massive part of American history as a whole,” Miller said. “If we don’t document it, it will just get forgotten.”
Texas A&M University student Caroline Kennedy, 26, brought Tsai and Miller, along with a dozen other grad students and marine archeologist, to the Green Mountains from the Lone Star State to work on her dissertation – a study of steamboat development in the 1830s.
Kennedy grew up in Montreal and developed an affinity for the lake that partially extends across the Canada-United States border.
Her steamboat graveyard project is being conducted with the help of Maritime Museum’s Kevin Crisman to document the dimensions and principal construction features of each hull, and to determine each wreck’s identity. The work is jointly sponsored by the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, TAMU’s Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation, and the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum.
Wrecks explored have been identified as the Winooski built in 1832, the Burlington built in 1837, and the Whitehall built in 1838. They are fully exposed, meaning only a thin layer of sediment needs to be brushed off before the work begins.
Valuables were fully stripped from the ships when they retired. Anything of monetary worth has already been removed. The treasures Kennedy hopes to find live within the construction of these vessels.
“The hulls span a period where constructional features were changing very fast,” Kennedy said. “There was a burst of change and innovation at this time. These archaeological remains are really telling us the story of steamboat construction. This project is a reflection of the acceptance of change that was part of the industrial revolution.”
Champlain Transportation Company, which is the Lake Champlain Transportation company now, owned the steamboats. “That company started in 1826 and Ticonderoga was the last steamboat they build in 1906,” Kennedy said. “That ship retired in 1953 and is the end result of all of the steamboat design.”
Ticonderoga did not retire to the lake bottom like its predecessors. Quite the opposite. It has been fully restored to its 1923 form and moved two miles from the bay to land on the grounds of the Shelburne Museum. It serves as a testament to maritime preservation, welcoming the thousands who visit and offering an opportunity to learn and explore.