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Missisquoi Bay Barges

In June 2000 the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum conducted an intensive archaeological study of four scow barges located in the Missisquoi Bay of Lake Champlain. We conducted the study at the request of the Vermont Agency of Transportation and as a sub-consultant for the University of Vermont’s Consulting Archaeology Program.

Nautical archaeologists investigate barges in Missisquoi Bay
Divers investigate barges in the Missisquoi Bay.

The Missisquoi Bay barges lie near the shore of the town of Alburg in Grand Isle County, Vermont. LCMM documented the barges because they lie in the impact area of the proposed Alburg-Swanton Bridge Replacement Project, and a previous archaeological study had determined that they were eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

April 10, 1938 saw the opening of the Missisquoi Bay Bridge connecting the towns of Swanton in Franklin County, Vermont and Alburg in Grande Isle County, Vermont, and the closing of a long and complex series of events relating to its construction. Central to this effort were six work barges that served as platforms for heavy equipment, vehicles for moving stone and earth, work areas for laborers, and floating breakwaters. With the completion of construction in 1938 these vessels lost their usefulness, and were abandoned. They now lie in the northwestern corner of the causeway in a state of progressive deterioration. The vessels are in two groups, with Barges C, D, E, and F (VTGI22-C, D, E, and F) adjacent to the causeway, while Barges A and B (VTGI22-A and B) were later moved by ice flows several hundred feet to the north.

Missisquoi Bay barge line drawing

The investigation revealed that the barges were all built in a similar edge-fastened manner, however, peculiarities in construction techniques between the vessels suggest they were built at two different shipyards. The barges were constructed almost exclusively of southern yellow pine. This wood species, widely available in the southern part of the United States, was likely shipped to a shipyard(s) along the Hudson waterway where these work barges were built. The barge remains revealed that two of the vessels were derrick lighters, based on the presence of a derrick step in their hulls, while the other two barges were open deck scows.

20th century photograph with barge in background

The documentation of the Alburg Barges helps fill a gap in our understanding of the past. Wooden work barges were a common sight 100, or even 50 years ago, but since the middle of the twentieth century their numbers have rapidly declined. As many barges reached a point where they were too costly to keep afloat, they were broken-up or discarded in some isolated inlet or ship graveyard. The ubiquity and unglamorous image of the work barge has led to a scarcity of information about how they were constructed. During much of the latter half of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century these vessels lined the waterfronts of every port, but over a few short decades they disappeared. Fortunately, the opportunity to study them is not lost. Their shattered hulks can still be found in the lakes, rivers, and coastal areas of the United States. It is the authors’ hope that the results of this documentation will be a significant step to understanding this aspect of our working past.

The results of this study were published in our technical report: Underwater Barge Documentation for the Alburg-Swanton Bridge Replacement Project, Lake Champlain Maritime Museum 2001.