Lake Champlain is one of the most historic bodies of water in North America. Researchers estimate that as many as 300 shipwrecks have occurred during its maritime history, and dozens of undiscovered wreck sites and hundreds of other underwater cultural resources still lie undisturbed on the lake floor. In an effort to learn more about the lake’s history, the Champlain Maritime Society (1981–1987) began a long-term, systematic investigation of Lake Champlain's submerged cultural resources, especially shipwrecks, which was continued by the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum (LCMM, founded 1986). This systematic survey project was at first expected to take decades to complete.
In 1993 zebra mussels were found for the first time in Lake Champlain. A non-native aquatic nuisance species, zebra mussels adversely affect submerged cultural resources, and their appearance in the lake dramatically increased the urgency of the survey project. During the spring of 1996, the Lake Champlain Basin Program, a federally funded program created through the Lake Champlain Special Designation Act of 1990, authorized LCMM to implement a lake-wide survey to inventory all cultural resources in Lake Champlain. This inventory (a Phase I or Stage I project) was to be completed in order to locate and document the lake’s shipwrecks before they became encrusted with zebra mussels. These non-native aquatic nuisance species endanger the preservation of submerged cultural resources, obscure them, and hinder their documentation and study. Mussel colonies also threaten to degrade underwater cultural resources physically as a result of their weight and corrosive action. No effective means to protect underwater historic resources from the impact of zebra and quagga mussels has been found.
The survey centers around the systematic inspection of the lake bed using acoustic imaging. This side scan sonar survey was carried out on board the research vessel (R/V) Neptune, owned and operated by Captain Fred Fayette. Our survey crew has been together now since 1996. Our core crew consists of Thomas and Patricia Manley, both geologists from Middlebury College, Kathy Baumann, a navigation specialist, and A. Peter Barranco Jr., navigator and long-time lake historian. The team divided the survey area with a zone-and-grid system, setting survey lines 2–3 km long and 170 m apart. Neptune navigated over each grid line, towing a Klein 595 side scan sonar towfish approximately 10 m off the lake floor, collecting and storing geophysical information. Each subsequent transect overlapped the previous one, insuring complete and methodical coverage of the bottom. The final product of each field season was an optical disk record of the lake floor of the entire survey area, including sonar images of geological features and shipwreck sites, noting the exact position, heading, and speed of the research vessel and the precise location and depth of each underwater target.
The potential archaeological sites located in deep water are investigated with a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), while a team of LCMM archaeologists preliminarily documents the shallower sites. The results of the Lake Survey Project are presented in a series of technical reports.
This lake-wide survey has revealed new information that has benefited archaeologists, historians, students, and the public through publications, exhibits, and the opening and maintenance of new underwater preserves. The broadest public benefit resulting from the survey will be the accumulation of archaeological information about a collection of previously unknown shipwrecks, allowing this archaeological data to be preserved in perpetuity. From this comprehensive inventory of shipwrecks, a management plan will eventually be developed that will make recommendations related to the preservation, protection, and interpretation of Lake Champlain's significant underwater archaeological sites.
A sampling of the shipwrecks discovered and documented as a result of the Lake Survey is presented in our Shipwrecks section.
Lake Champlain Underwater Cultural Resources Survey Reports: