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After 240 Years At Bottom Of Lake Champlain, A Plan To Raise Revolutionary War-Era Ship

An aerial view of Lake Champlain
Peter Hirschfeld
VPR file
Over 200 years ago, the Spitfire, a Revolutionary War-era gunship, sank to the bottom of Lake Champlain after being damaged during the Battle of Valcour Island. Now, researchers are proposing a plan to raise the ship, restore it and put it on display.

A gunship that sank during battle more than two centuries ago might finally be resurfaced from the depths of Lake Champlain and put on display.

On Oct. 11, 1776, the British and the United States fought what is considered the first naval battle of the Revolutionary War  — the Battle of Valcour Island.

The U.S. was led by Benedict Arnold, and even though the U.S. lost the actual battle, it ended up being strategic in the long run because the U.S. fleet stalled British plans to advance.

Most of the 16 U.S. ships in the battle sank. About 20 years ago, one of the gunboats in that battle, the Spitfire, was discovered intact on the bottom of Lake Champlain.

VPR spoke to Art Cohn, co-founder of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum and principal investigator of the Spitfire since its discovery, about the plan to raise the ship and why people should care about old sunken boats.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity. Listen to the full interview above.

VPR: Tell us about the Spitfire. How big was this boat and what shape was it in when you discovered it?

Cohn: "The Spitfire was one of eight 'Philadelphia-class,' we call it, gunboats: 54 feet long, three heavy cannon, eight swivel guns [and] a complement of 45 men. It was a classic battleship, small in scale for its times.

"And so it and the other American vessels fought the British at Valcour Island for five and a half hours, and the only reason they stopped was because it got too dark to see each other.

"And so as the British pulled back and blockaded, Benedict Arnold realized he could not sustain the engagement. And so he hatched a plan, very bold: He was going to row his fleet single file, with muffled oars and a shrouded light in the stern of each vessel, and so they could try to sneak past that British blockade that was set up specifically to stop them. And they pulled it off.

"But in the middle of the night, as they rowed south toward the protection of Fort Ticonderoga and Mount Independence and their guns, it was discovered that two of the gunboats were so badly damaged from the battle that they could not be kept afloat.

"And one of those boats, we now know, was the gunboat Spitfire. It was abandoned by its crew in the middle of the night, went to the bottom perfectly on its bottom with its mast still standing and its bow cannons still in place – which is the way we found it 20 years ago last Tuesday."

Is there any danger to raising the boat? What are some of the pitfalls?

"I frequently say, 'Finding the boats is the easiest thing we get to do; managing the boats is complicated.'

"And so as part of that due diligence management plan – so we found this boat, it's intact on the bottom of Lake Champlain, it's in a relatively stable environment. Is it OK there? Is that the best place for this boat? If the boat could speak would it say 'Look, just take a deep breath and let me relax here for another hundred years' or is there something else going on?

"We know that this boat, even at its great depth, will soon be completely encrusted by quagga mussels. That will ultimately increase the destabilization and degradation of the iron fastenings that hold this boat together." – Art Cohn, Lake Champlain Maritime Museum co-founder

"And unfortunately we have determined through a separate study, done with the University of Vermont School of Natural Resources, that the mussels that will encrust this boat – it's not encrusted yet, but looking over to the Great Lakes, which is our little window or crystal ball into the future – we know that this boat, even at its great depth, will soon be completely encrusted by quagga mussels.

"That will ultimately increase the destabilization and degradation of the iron fastenings that hold this boat together. That's been one of our findings. And not so far into the future, this boat is going to be a pile of lumber on the bottom, not the fabulous archeological time capsule it is for us now."

What do you propose doing if you're able to bring up the Spitfire successfully?

"We're proposing building a ship conservation facility in Burlington, Vermont. That would be where the boat, if it was recovered, would go for its conservation.

"It would stay in that facility for the next 12 to 15 years undergoing this conservation treatment. The public would be invited in to see this; we would have programs and exhibits.

"And we're also proposing that when the boat was completed, we would transfer the boat to an exhibit facility to be placed on the New York side of the lake for exhibition and interpretation of the Battle of Valcour Island in perpetuity.”

"This boat is a direct and tangible connection to 1776 and the formative moments of this country and this society evolving into the United States of America that it is today."

How much is it going to cost to recover the Spitfire?

"We estimate over 25 years and with the things that I've just mentioned – the two facilities, the staff and everything that would go into this – we are estimating a high budget of $45 million.

"We have done a preliminary economic analysis study to suggest if we spent the money over time in this way, might there be some benefits, economic benefits, to the community. And right now, the strong indication is that if we invested this money in this way, we would not only save this shipwreck – we would create an economic engine for the region."

Why should put all this time, effort and money into recovering a ship that's over 200 years old?

"To me, the answer is 'It's priceless.' This boat is a direct and tangible connection to 1776 and the formative moments of this country and this society evolving into the United States of America that it is today.

"How do we understand those principles? How do we get at those things? And I've been an advocate for a long time – you know, go back to the source, go back to the time period, read the letters, read the journals, read the reports. And I think it gets us a much better view of the country that has evolved and how we keep those principles alive."

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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