Isle La Motte | June 26 & 27
By Art Cohn, Lake Champlain Maritime Museum
SATURDAY, JUNE 27, 2009
As I have been traveling in the northern lake with our three-boat historical circus over the past twelve days, I am experiencing the lake, its people and its history up close and personal. I don't think I can express in words how great it is to be back with this talented crew in this year of the Quadricentennial, bringing the stories of history to communities that are all part of that story. It's amazing how many stories and how much information we get back.
I write this from the Hero's Welcome dock in North Hero, the fourth stop on our twenty-community Discover 1609 tour. The weather has been very rainy but unable to dampen the enthusiasm of the visitors who are coming aboard and the quality of the experience has really been very validating for the crew and for me.
Isle La Motte was our third port-of-call and a very special place for the Lois McClure to visit. It was from this beautiful and historic island that the General Butler departed for the Burlington marble company in December 1876 carrying one more load before the winter enforced time-off. Clearly, Captain William Montgomery was expecting a routine passage because his passengers included his teenage daughter Cora and her girlfriend who were aboard to do some Christmas shopping in the Queen City. Captain Montgomery only had one crewman aboard and he also carried Elisha Goodsell, a neighbor and quarryman with an eye injury who was being taken to Burlington to see a doctor. As they headed south the sky began to darken and what unfolded next was anything but routine.
The Sinking of the General Butler by Ernie Haas
The General Butler, a fifteen-year old canal schooner that had recently been declared uninsurable, was overtaken by a storm of monumental proportions. The Burlington newspaper the next day reported that "Winter wasn't content with just leaving its calling card yesterday, it came and swallowed up the whole earth." As the heavily laden Butler made its way toward Burlington, the wind steadily increased and built the seas to dangerous heights. With snow surrounding the vessel and the force of the water increasing, the ship's crucial steering mechanism broke from the strain. Captain Montgomery reacted quickly and with the help of his crewman was able to deploy his large storm anchor which momentarily held the crippled vessel in place while he labored to attach a tiller bar to his broken steering system. Now, with some hope of surviving this disaster, Captain Montgomery ordered his crewman to crawl forward and cut the anchor line with an ax so they might try to reach safe harbor behind the massive stone-filled wooden cribs of the Burlington Breakwater. Ironically, Captain Montgomery and the Isle La Motte quarries had been instrumental in furnishing stone for the ever-expanding wall.
As the Butler drifted under the sloppy control of her jury-rigged tiller, it became clear that she would not make the angle and clear the structure. Instead, the force of the water lifted the 88-foot schooner over the top of the breakwater and dropped it hard on the ice-covered top layer of stones. This was not good and Captain Montgomery quickly calculated that his boat was doomed. He also knew that he needed to get everyone off the ship before she broke apart and sank. As each wave lifted the Butler again, the captain dropped his human cargo over the side of the vessel until only he was left aboard. As the Butler was lifted one last time, the captain himself jumped from the ship and, by all accounts, having remained afloat long enough to transfer her people to the breakwater, General Butler settled back and sank in the trough of the wave with only her masts marking her resting place.
While the drama of the vessel's last moments was now past, the extreme drama of saving the five people stranded on the breakwater was at hand. They had made the transition from boat to breakwater but not unscathed. Elisha Goodsell, already injured, had struck his head and was unconscious. The rest were already suffering from hypothermia and their end was in sight when a familiar voice emerged from the storm and called to them to get ready. It was James Wakefield, the venerable Burlington ship-chandler who had seen their plight and knew that unless someone got to them soon they were as doomed as their ship. Wakefield, an experienced mariner, had set out in the 14-foot Burlington lighthouse rowboat with his son Jack. They reached the stranded people and quickly loaded them aboard and began the pull for shore and safety. They made it and all were taken to Doctor Sullivan's home with Cora unconscious from exposure. It was with some pride that the newspaper reported that when she was revived the first thing she asked was whether she could make the return trip to the island in the Butler when it was raised.
Each year LCMM commemorates the retrieval of the General Butler's crew & passengers with the James Wakefield Rescue Row youth race. The 2009 race will be held on Oct. 17
The General Butler was never raised. The cost of salvage was more than the old ship was worth and so her masts were removed and as the years went by she slowly faded into community memory. Captain Merritt Carpenter, a life-long student, teacher and Lake Champlain ferry captain, told me about a boat that the old-timers had told him was supposed to be on the backside of the breakwater and asked if I could look for it. In 1980, two of my diving students, Scott McDonald and Dean Russell, rediscovered the General Butler and called me to investigate the amazing site. Sitting in just 40 feet of water the intact wooden vessel rose up almost 10 feet high off the lake-bottom, and stretched out 88 feet long. I remember swimming over the deck and seeing stumps of masts, dead-eyes and what looked like a centerboard and thinking this must have been a sailing vessel. When I later spoke to knowledgeable canal people about the length and beam measurements they were sure we were dealing with a mid-19th century canal boat. When I asked about the sailing features they indicated that I must be mistaken, and that sailing canal boats had never existed in North America. However, the actual presence of an intact example of a Lake Champlain canal schooner soon changed their minds and opened up a whole new understanding of this working class hybrid, which appeared here simultaneously with the opening of the Champlain Canal in 1823.
The rest of the visit was out of a storybook. The residents of Isle La Motte embraced us as long-lost family and gave us every welcome and hospitality. The public showed up in large numbers and from this little island community we had more than 800 visitors in just two days. The warmth, affection, learning, stories and good feelings were about as good as it gets and we are already talking about an opportunity to return sometime in the near future.
What followed was a decade of in-water documentation and two decades of archival research. The story of the Lake Champlain sailing canal boats just kept coming more into focus, like a jigsaw puzzle taking form. In addition to the Butler, LCMM had located and documented the O.J. Walker, another 1862-class canal schooner just ½ mile from the Butler. The O.J. Walker was built in Burlington while the Butler had been built at the shipyard in Essex, NY. Then in 2000, Mac and Lois McClure presented us with an opportunity to launch a new replica project on the Burlington waterfront. With the generous invitation to establish a shipyard at the Lake Champlain Transportation Company King Street ferry dock, our dedicated boat builders and volunteers began to fashion a clone of the General Butler and O. J. Walker. On July 3rd, (five years ago today) the Lois McClure, the first canal schooner to be launched into Lake Champlain in more than a century, was launched in Burlington. What has occurred over the past five years has been nothing short of extraordinary.
We have published Lake Champlain's Sailing Canal Boats and Life on a Canal Boat: The Journals of Theodore D. Bartley, 1861-1889 (both available at our Online Ship's Store) as well as a comprehensive standards-based curriculum. We have traveled around Lake Champlain, to New York City, Buffalo and Quebec City and visited more than 100 communities with direct ties to the boat and its history. We have had more than 150,000 people aboard. And now we were making landfall at the Fisk Quarry on Isle La Motte, a symbolic and emotional homecoming for the Lois McClure and her crew. With the Fisk Landing dock long since out-of-repair, we worked hard with our friends on Isle La Motte to engineer a docking that placed us exactly where the historic photographs suggested the boats were tied up. It was truly glorious and impressive to see the Lois secured and taking on visitors from this historic spot.
The McClure docked at the Fisk Quarry in Isle La Motte. Photo by Kerry Batdorf.
Bob McEwen of the Isle La Motte Historical Society
Selby and Marty Turner
Steve and Trish Zonie
Linda Fitch of the Fisk Farm