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Underwater Preserves Underwater Preserves | Underwater Lake Survey

Underwater Preserves

Click here to view enlarged map as 195 KB PDF file. Lake Champlain and nearby Lake George have perhaps the best preserved collection of submerged cultural heritage resources in North America. Shipwrecks already found reflect every era of past human activity in the Champlain Basin, from Native American pre-contact, through the repeated military conflicts and the dynamic commercial period of the 19th century.

The Underwater Preserves Map [195 KB] shows the locations of publically accessible shipwrecks in Lake Champlain and Lake George. These include the Phoenix, the second steamboat on Lake Champlain, launched in 1815 and burned in 1819; the General Butler, another sailing canal schooner that struck the Burlington Breakwater and sank during a violent storm in 1876; the Horse Ferry, the only known surviving example of this watercraft technology; and the Water Witch, which sunk during a squall in 1866, not far from the mouth of Otter Creek.

The Coal Barge, A.R Noyes sank in 1884 after breaking loose from a tugboat. The Champlain II, a steamer built in 1868 in Burlington by Orson Spear to ferry railroad cars, was converted to a steamer in 1874 and was wrecked in 1875 when she ran aground north of Westport, New York. Two standard canal boats, the O.J.Walker and the Diamond Island Stone Boat are also important preserves.

The three submerged heritage preserves on Lake George include the Land Tortoise, a floating gun battery that was intentionally scuttled to store it under winter lake ice, and the Sunken Fleet, composed of seven bateaux that were also intentionally scuttled to prevent their capture or destruction by French forces. The Forward is a 1906 motor launch reported to have been one of the earliest gasoline-powered vessels on Lake George.

Degradation of water quality, zebra mussels and other nuisance aquatics, improved search technologies and increased accessibility pose difficult challenges in protecting these resources. The Lake Champlain Basin Program has supported research by the Maritime Museum and the University of Vermont on the effects of zebra mussels on the shipwrecks.

Educators and students: Draw your own map of shipwrecks! Visit the Blank Maps section of the Educators pages for an "empty" Lake Champlain map.

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Underwater Lake Survey

deploying the ROV Since 1996, the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum (LCMM) and other partners have been mapping the Lake's underwater world to learn about shipwrecks and other artifacts on the Lake floor before they are obscured by zebra mussels. It is estimated that 50% of the Lake's historical shipwrecks lie within the reach of zebra mussels, which is around 105 feet deep. The Lake Champlain Basin Program has contributed more than $200,000 to this project.

The LCMM's intent is to increase public awareness about the Lake and to develop a management plan to protect the underwater sites. As of 2004, the survey has mapped 288 square miles of Lake bottom and discovered 75 previously unknown shipwrecks.

sonar image of gunboat Researchers use a side scan sonar survey, a dive team and a remote operated vehicle to locate and identify objects in the water. The side scan sonar emits sound waves to detect objects in the Lake. These images are sent to a computer assisted mapping system that researchers use to study the results. If the depth is safe for humans (less than 180 feet deep), divers will investigate the objects. Otherwise, a remote operated vehicle (ROV) is used to reach depths of more than 180 feet. The ROV is a video camera that can be controlled remotely from the boat. It can do visual searches, videography and photography.

cannon on the gunboat Researchers estimate that as many as 300 shipwrecks have occurred during Lake Champlain's maritime history, and dozens of undiscovered wreck sites and hundreds of other underwater cultural resources still lie undisturbed on the Lake floor. The shipwrecks that have been located since the Lake Survey began in 1996 represent an extraordinary collection of primarily 19th century commercial craft. Each wreck tells its own story of technology, commerce, and human interactions with history.

painting of the gunboat Perhaps the most exciting and historically significant find is a 54 foot Revolutionary War gunboat. Discovered by the LCMM in 1997, the boat sits nearly upright in deep water with its mast intact and bow cannon still ready to fire. Recent research has identified the boat as the Spitfire, which was one of eight American gunboats in the October 1776 Battle of Valcour. The fleet was under the command of Brigadier General Benedict Arnold when the Spitfire sank after the battle, which was won by the British forces.

The Maritime Museum is working in cooperation with the Naval Historical Center and the States of New York and Vermont, with significant input from the public, to develop a comprehensive management plan for the long-term preservation and interpretation of the site. The gunboat, known as "Benedict Arnold's last Revolutionary War gunboat," has also been designated by The National Trust for Historic Preservation as an official project of the Presidential program "Save America's Treasures."

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Learn More...
  • Lake Champlain Maritime Museum
  • Submerged Heritage Preserves - NYSDEC
    Region 5
    Route 86, Box 296
    Ray Brook NY 12977
    Phone: 518-897-1200
  • Valcour Bay Research Project
  • Zebra Mussels, Shipwrecks and the Environment. Watzin, Cohn, and Lescaze. 2000 and 2001 Final Reports - Available from the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum.
Lake Champlain Basin Program, 2004
Design: Nicole L. Ballinger (LCBP) | Maps: Northern Cartographic and LCBP