Sloop Island Canal Boat
UPDATE: In 2012, LCMM researchers returned to the Sloop Island Canal Boat with a scanning sonar unit from BlueView. Read about the exceptional imagery that was produced: Scanning Sonar of the Sloop Island Canal Boat
In the summer of 2002, the Maritime Research Institute undertook an intensive underwater archaeological study of a canal boat in the waters of Lake Champlain near Charlotte, Vermont. The "Sloop Island Canal boat" is an early twentieth century standard canal boat. To our knowledge, the Maritime Research Institute has begun conducting the most in-depth investigation of a canal boat ever undertaken.
Pine Street Barge Canal Superfund Site
We were given the opportunity to study the vessel as part of the environmental clean-up of the Pine Street Barge Canal Superfund Site in Burlington. This small canal was built for easier loading/unloading of canal boats in the 1860s as Burlington’s waterfront boomed with the shipment of millions of board feet of lumber. In 1895, a coal gasification plant, which produced manufactured gas from coal and oil, was established next to the canal. In the process of creating manufactured gas, the locally abundant wood chips were used as a filter. Waste products from this process included coal tar, fuel oil, tar-saturated wood chips, cinders, cyanide, and metals. The wastes were disposed in the wetlands around the canal. The legacy of this contamination is still with us today.
In 1983, Pine Street Barge Canal was put onto the National Priorities List as a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency. The descendant companies of those that worked along the canal, Green Mountain Power among others and the current landowners, were charged with cleaning up the site. As part of this process, an archaeological study was conducted in the canal; it located five derelict canal boats.
All of the canal boats were of a type known as "Enlarged Erie-Class" built around 1900. The boats were deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places because of the unique information that they could tell us about the past. This presented a problem, because capping the contaminated area, part of the proposed environmental clean-up, would make the vessels inaccessible to future researchers. Studying the canal boats, however, was not possible due to contamination at the site.
Solution: Sloop Island Canal Boat Study
The solution to this problem presented itself in 1998 when LCMM’s Lake Survey Project located a canal boat of the same type as those five in the barge canal—except this one was in the broad lake. Given the designation Wreck Z, because it was the twenty-sixth shipwreck we had located, its significance in this pristine archaeological site was immediately apparent.
It was then formally proposed that instead of studying the canal boats in the Superfund site, researchers instead study this one in waters off Sloop Island. After much discussion and debate, the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation, the Environmental Protection Agency, Green Mountain Power, and LCMM, among others, agreed. It was a unique solution, a case study of sorts, for an otherwise difficult situation.
With all the details worked out, our dive team found itself with the enormous and marvelous task of studying this large, intact shipwreck. We focused on two main goals: documenting the vessel’s structure and recovering the artifacts from the cabin. A team of seven MRI archaeologists spent seven weeks capturing every last scrap of information.
The vessel, which rests below ninety feet of cold water, is in excellent condition. Its hull, with one single, large open cargo hatch, rises about ten feet proud off the bottom, presenting an impressive structure. The vessel still carries its last cargo—a load of coal. At the canal boat’s stern is the most interesting feature: the cabin. The cabin’s interior contained all of the items that a family of canalers needed as they made their way from port to port. The presence of cargo and numerous artifacts indicates the vessel sank unintentionally, capturing a complete look into the lives of a nearly forgotten group of people.
After hundreds of hours of library and archival research, we still have not been able to locate the name of the Sloop Island Canal Boat. However, the volume of artifacts recovered from the cabin and fo'c'sle have led to a number of clues to its use and sinking.
These findings have been published in a report that can be downloaded (available here - 31.3mb PDF), as well as a full color popular publication designed for educators that can be downloaded (available here - 1.47mb PDF) by anyone interested in this significant shipwreck
At the moment, many of the recovered and conserved artifacts are on display at LCMM's Basin Harbor facility. In addition, the Sloop Island Canal Boat has now been opened as part of Lake Champlain's Underwater Historic Preserve System.
Many agencies, organizations, and individuals came together to make this project possible. We are especially grateful to Green Mountain Power, National Grid USA Service Company, Vermont Gas, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation, the Wings Point Association, Luther Bridgeman and family, and Waterfront Diving Center.
For more information visit the Environmental Protection Agency's pages on the Pine Street Canal, which contains the following documents as PDFs:
- Photodocumentation of Historic Canal Cribwork
- Pine Street Canal Historic Resources Survey