Offbeat

Lake Champlain Yields Priceless Historical Shipwrecks & Artifacts of America’s Past

Vermont diver, Fred Fayette, came of age exploring Lake Champlain, and was a key member of the crew that mapped its murky underside over the last decade.

Employing a precision and technology never before available, sonar, remote underwater cameras, and computers explored the floor of the lake each summer, probing back and forth across computer-guided grids. Fayette and his crew aboard the research vessel, Neptune, have unlocked some of history’s most enduring mysteries.

Although Fayette is the first to admit that underwater research can be very boring, referring to it as the equivalent of driving from New York to San Francisco at three miles per hour, the excitement of a discovery remains unparalleled.

Twelve years ago there came the first of what would prove to be many magical moments when the sonar picked up an image of the American warship, Spitfire, the previously missing gunboat in Benedict Arnold’s fleet, which sank in October 1776. Fayette will not reveal the exact location of the sunken vessel.

arnold

“It was very exciting. We’ve had dozens of shipwrecks over the years. We had a small plane appear in the southern part of the lake in 200 feet of water and a few railroad cars on the lake bottom off Rouses Point, NY, too.”

The pristine condition of the Spitfire, which was sitting upright and fully intact, was a sight to behold. Dark water is a preservative and in the words of Art Cohn, director of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum and a marine archaeologist:

“Inside, is what we believe to be an artifact collection frozen in time from the early-morning hours of Oct. 12, 1776, still in the hull, so the archaeological potential, we think, is extraordinary. The meaning to the national story is as good as you can get.”

The US Spitfire has its own place in history, which binds it forever to the turbulent and colorful days of the American Revolution. Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen (long before he went into furniture) had captured Fort Ticonderoga in 1775 and it was there, very hastily, that they built their fleet.

spitfire

These gunboats were built without specific plans, although Arnold dictated the basic dimensions required. The rigging consisted of a single mast with a square mainsail and a topsail. Due to their square sails and flat, shallow bottoms, the gunboats could only sail in wind blowing from astern. Their design clearly reflects a balance between the need for rapid construction and effectiveness for their intended purpose.

The Spitfire was one of eight gunboats that operated in 1776 on Lake Champlain as part of Arnold’s small fleet of ships whose purpose was to counter any British invaders passing through the lake from Canada. A prime strategic location, Lake Champlain was a critical transport route for both sides of the conflict. The Spitfire had a short life of only a few months, as she was lost after the clash of forces at Valcour Island, which is regarded as the US Navy’s first naval battle.

This summer marks a very important anniversary; the 400th since the French explorer, Samuel de Champlain, made his singular voyage south from what is now Canada. This occasion will force new attention on the trove of shipwrecks lying on the bottom of the lake. Cohn refers to these remnants from eras long faded into the mists of time as the best preserved anywhere in the world. Their presence has attracted thousands of divers to the lake, all with aspirations of becoming a part of history in the making.

champlain

The focus as of this writing is to develop a permanent lake management plan that will insure that the nearly 300 shipwrecks are catalogued and preserved for generations to come. Development of this plan is now in its preliminary stages and it is expected that several more months will be needed for its completion. Once again, according to Cohn:

“People should take pride in the legacy left here, the history that took place, the size and diversity of this incredible collection.”

Vermont U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, who is also an amateur diver, said:

“We have to preserve them as historical treasures; otherwise you’ll have souvenir hunters going down with grappling hooks and pulling pieces out.”

Someday soon The Spitfire will be on display, its secrets of another time and place forever unlocked and on view for all to behold. One can only feel humble in its presence, as it tells a noble tale of an era that is no more, a moment in history that is part of the saga of a country propelled to leadership in the modern world.

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  1. alyssa says:

    where did the spitfire sink?

  2. Sanford Smith says:

    This is incredibule, how far along are they to raising it? My Grandfather's Marina was involved with raising the "Philidelphia", back in the 30s.