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Era of Waterborne Commerce (1823-1945)

Do you have relatives in this area that were involved in the 19th century commerical boating? See our listing of canalers, shipwrights, and boat names. If you have additional information, we'd love to include it. Email us at info@lcmm.org or call (802) 475-2022.

The opening of the Champlain Canal fundamentally affected the economic development of the Champlain Valley. Extractive industries, particularly timber cutting, stone quarrying, and iron mining, experienced a surge of activity as entrepreneurs hastened to take advantage of the new unrestricted domestic market for their products. Agricultural surpluses of apples, potatoes, grain, butter, cheese, and other semi-perishables could be shipped quickly and inexpensively to urban centers along the Eastern Seaboard. The Champlain Canal also provided residents of Vermont and northeastern New York with manufactured goods and raw materials that had previously cost a great deal to ship overland or import from Canada. The year 1823 marked the end of the Champlain Valley's relative isolation from the outside world and its entry into the national economy.

The opening of the canal created a demand not only for canal boats, but also for vessels to transport cargoes between Whitehall and other ports on the lake. Lake sloops and schooners initially met this demand, as cargoes were transferred from standard canal boats to conventional sailing lake craft at each end of the Champlain Canal. The capacity and number of sloops and schooners increased dramatically after the opening of the canal, and small-scale shipbuilding operations were set up at many of the smaller lakeside towns.

Canal Schooner P.E. Havens, circa 1900
An "1862-class" sailing canal boat P.E. Havens, photographed circa 1900.
(LCMM Collection)

The number and types of vessels that passed over Lake Champlain’s waters greatly increased after 1823. The canal's shallow channels, low bridges, and narrow locks were too restrictive for nearly all of the existing lake merchant craft, so large numbers of long, narrow, shallow-draft boats were constructed for canal service. Three types of canal vessels were employed during the early years of the canal: standard canal boats, sailing canal boats, and packets. All of these craft were towed through the canal by teams of mules or horses. By 1833, there were 232 cargo- and passenger-carrying canal boats registered at towns along Lake Champlain and the canal. Shipyards that specialized in the building of standard canal boats and packets appeared in the southern portion of Lake Champlain and at towns along the Champlain Canal. Shipbuilders at the northern end of the lake occasionally constructed sloop- or schooner-rigged canal boats that could sail up to Whitehall, unstep their masts, raise a centerboard or leeboards, and pass through the canal.

The use of the sailing canal boat increased after 1841, when Burlington businessmen Timothy Follett and John Bradley formed the Merchants Lake Boat Line. The practice of transferring cargoes from lake craft to standard canal boats had long been recognized as inefficient due to delay, expense and damage to freight. Follett and Bradley thus chose to use sailing canal boats in their fleet to avoid unnecessary handling. Their vessels were sloop-rigged with centerboards, and the profitability of their line soon forced other shippers to switch to similar boats.

Other sailing canal boats included: O.J. Walker, General Butler, and others.

The effect of the sailing canal boat on other types of merchant craft was considerable. The construction of sloops and schooners declined very rapidly after 1842, and those that remained in service were relegated to secondary roles such as carrying stone, lumber, and other bulky cargoes between lake ports. In order to compete with the sailing canal boats, owners of standard canal boat lines also dispensed with the unnecessary freight handling by building steam tugboats for canal service and a different style of tugboat for lake service. The elimination of trans-shipment at each end of the Champlain Canal lowered freight rates and increased the profitability of bulk cargoes.

The opening of the canal also proved beneficial to steam navigation on Lake Champlain. The steamer Vermont, completed in 1809, was the world's second commercial steamer and the first steamer on Lake Champlain. The vessel survived the economic and military hazards of the War of 1812, but it sank in the Richelieu River in 1815 when its crankshaft disconnected and punched a hole through the bottom of the hull. This early experiment with steam navigation was, however, still considered a success, and the loss of Vermont did not interrupt steamer passenger service for long. A new steamboat called Phoenix (VT-CH-0587), measuring 44.5 m (146 ft) in length with a 45-hp steam engine, replaced the Vermont. Phoenix and the other steamers that followed operated successful and lucrative services on Lake Champlain. By the 1830s one steamboat company in particular, the Champlain Transportation Company (CTC), began to take the lead over its competitors. The CTC began purchasing the passenger steamers of other companies or acquiring the companies outright. Finally, in January 1835, the CTC acquired a monopoly on Lake Champlain steamboat ferry service, which it maintained until the end of the steamer era.

Small cross-lake ferryboats were also an important part of Lake Champlain's commercial traffic throughout the nineteenth century. From 1825 onward, steam ferries dominated long-distance crossings, but most of the short-distance crossings continued to be served by sail or sweep-propelled scows. In the late 1820s, a trend of horse-powered ferries swept the lake, and a number of these innovative craft were put into service at medium-distance crossings. By 1848, however, all of these vessels had been replaced with other watercraft types.

The opening of the Chambly Canal around the rapids of the Richelieu River in 1843 also boosted the economy of the Champlain Valley. The new waterway opened a direct passage to interior trade markets and allowed merchants to ship goods between the Great Lakes, the Eastern Seaboard, and the St. Lawrence Valley without trans-shipment.

Railroad Development (1848-1875)

The idea of connecting Lake Champlain with the Atlantic Ocean by rail was first conceived in the 1830s. In 1848 a railroad was completed that connected the Hudson and Champlain Valleys. This railroad foreshadowed the dramatic effect railways would have on Lake Champlain's shipping and passenger service. The prospect of connecting the Champlain Valley to the Atlantic Ocean became reality in 1849 with the completion of a rail line from Boston to Burlington, Vermont.

The railroad industry developed very quickly in the Northeast. The earliest railroads crossed upstate New York and Vermont on their way from Canadian and Great Lakes cities to the warm water ports on the Eastern Seaboard. By 1853, the Champlain Valley was connected by rail to Montreal, Boston, Albany, and New York City. The early railroad years seemed to create more business for the lake vessels, but it soon became clear that they would ultimately appropriate nearly all business. Once railroad spurs were constructed throughout the Champlain Valley and the reliability of trains increased, the price of shipping by rail dropped dramatically and seriously competed with lake commerce. Railroads also offered a year-round transportation alternative, something that Lake Champlain could not provide.

The railroads reduced the work of vessels on Lake Champlain to moving cheap and heavy freight and tourists. Hauling cheap Canadian timber for growing American cities proved to be a staple for lake shipping for the rest of the nineteenth century, and ferry companies still provided the fastest and easiest service around the Champlain Valley. Steamboats of all sizes and functions were built and operated on the lake during the mid-nineteenth century in attempts to speed transportation on the lake and to make it more economical. These steamboats originally complemented the services of many of the sailing craft but eventually dominated the longer ferry crossings throughout the lake.

Decline of Lake Commerce (1874-1945)

One of the most negative effects on Lake Champlain commerce resulted from the construction of a rail line on the western shore of Lake Champlain. Many vessels operating on the lake had depended upon the transport of bulky cargoes of iron ore mined in the Adirondack Mountains. Once railroad tracks ran along the western shoreline, they were able to capture almost all of the iron ore traffic, simply as a matter of economics.

The new rail line also rendered the need for passenger steamers on Lake Champlain unnecessary. Passenger steamers continued to operate on the lake until the middle of the twentieth century, but they were no longer an essential part of the Champlain Valley's transportation network. The 1870s marked a rapid decline in all types of commercial sailing craft on Lake Champlain. With a few exceptions, the production of commercial sailing craft ceased in the 1870s, and a substantial number of the existing canal sloops and schooners were dismasted and converted into standard towed canal boats. An increasing number of steam tugs made towing a faster and more effective means of moving cargo around the lake. The expanding rail system also served a greater number of the northern lake towns, drawing away the freight that had previously supported the sailing craft.

Lake Champlain commerce survived into the middle of the twentieth century by carrying bulky cargoes within the Champlain Valley and bringing fuel oil, kerosene, and gasoline to the largest lake towns and cities. In an effort to stimulate lake commerce and activity on the Champlain Canal, the State of New York decided to enlarge the lock size to accommodate larger vessels by 1916. The state wrongly assumed that enlarging the size of the vessels would reduce the cost of shipment, thus providing an incentive to use water transportation instead of railroads. The new lock dimensions, however, exceeded the practical size for a shallow-draft wooden vessel. Commercial wooden ships had largely become obsolete by the 1920s, when wooden shipbuilding yielded to the construction of iron or steel vessels.

The use of ferries also eventually declined, primarily as a result of bridge construction. In 1929 the Champlain Bridge, the first permanent highway bridge to span Lake Champlain, was constructed between Crown Point, New York, and Chimney Point, Vermont. The second highway to cross the lake, from Rouses Point, New York, to Swanton, Vermont, was completed in 1938. This causeway required the construction of two bridges, the Rouses Point Bridge and the Missisquoi Bay Bridge. By 1945, bridges connected almost all of the Champlain Islands, and the roads around Lake Champlain had been vastly improved. The automobile, introduced to the region at the turn of the century, eventually replaced the horse and carriage and became the most popular way to transport goods and passengers throughout the Champlain Valley. Even tourists abandoned the lake's excursion vessels and embraced the automobile as the easiest way to explore and move about the area. As the number of automobiles increased, the demand for better roads and bridges took precedence over the lake's commercial fleet.