Photo credit: Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. www.lcmm.org.
Despite what little commercial activity currently occurs, Lake Champlain once played a major role in the commercial transportation of goods. In the late 1800s large barges and freighters covered the water, and several trains rode the tracks up, down, and across the lake. With all this traffic, it’s no wonder Lake Champlain is widely known as one of the best places to dive and view under water wrecks.
The most intact, and one of the largest, was discovered in 1999, in Port Henry, New York’s, Bulwagga Bay. This is its story.
In 1870, the iron ore industry was booming. NY’s Port Henry became a shipping hub for the thousands of tons of ore being drilled out of the surrounding Adirondack foothills. The issue that arose, however, was how to most efficiently move the ore to the furnaces in Crown Point, NY. Rail wouldn’t work – a trestle would block all boat traffic to the bay, and to go around would be too far. Even by boat, you would have to get the ore to the boat, load it, ship it, unload it, and truck it to the furnaces – far too much work. The solution would need to allow for rail and boats to coexist.
The answer, it was determined, was a drawboat. This early style of drawbridge connected two sections of trestle. Most of the time, the barge stayed in place so the regularly scheduled trains could pass uninhibited. When a large boat did need to pass through, the barge was unbolted and pulled out of the way.
Made from 12” x 12” oak beams and reinforced with cross -bracing and iron plates, the Port Henry drawboat measured 250 feet long, 34 feet wide, and nearly 12 feet tall. It perfectly fit the gap in the new trestle, known as the Port Henry Bridge, which was built to connect the ore depot in Port Henry to the furnaces in Crown Point. When the system opened up for use in the early spring for the 1870 hauling season, it worked perfectly.
The drawboat continued to function throughout the season until the ice came in and operators were forced to close it down for the winter. Problems arose in the spring, however, when engineers did their inspection before opening up the railway. They discovered that over the winter, ice had lifted and shifted the trestle itself. The cost of repairs was more than anyone could afford. Left with no other choice, they dismantled the trestle for scrap and sank the barge.
Fast forward to 1999, Arthur Cohn, Director of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, picked up the shape of a boat on radar. A follow-up dive revealed the largest and most well-preserved ship wreck ever found on Lake Champlain. With the exception of two long holes on the deck, perhaps caused when workers salvaged the metal from the attached rails and hardware, the barge sits in the same condition as the day it was sunk.
There is still an air of mystery surrounding the barge. It is unknown who constructed, and subsequently sunk, the barge. Nor is there any record of the barge ever having been named. What is known, however, is that this beautiful piece of well-preserved history is a reminder of just how much used to happen on Lake Champlain.
For more information, please see the following links and resources.
http://bit.ly/PMkgAH – Press Republican news article. July 15, 2000
http://bit.ly/O0XqSA – Adirondack Heritage-Travels through Time in New York’s North Country. A collection of stories by Lee Manchester
http://bit.ly/SVDP9R – extensive write-up by the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum.