Port Henry Drawboat

The Port Henry Drawboat, located during the 1999 sonar survey, is a railroad drawboat believed to be the largest intact shipwreck in Lake Champlain.

Railroad drawboats were an adaptation that allowed the lake’s commercial shipping and railroad interests to co-exist. As the railroads expanded their network of tracks in the Champlain Valley in the nineteenth century, they occasionally needed to make an east-west lake crossing via low bridges that obstructed lake navigation. Because commercial lake traffic was still very active, that created a problem. The solution lay in the development of the railroad drawboat. A drawboat was a heavily built barge with railroad tracks that ran down the center of its deck. The boat could be lodged into a gap between two sections of fixed-pile trestles that emerged from each shoreline. When the drawboat was in position, it filled the gap and completed the rail connection for a train to cross the lake. When the train had passed, the floating drawboat was pivoted out of the way to open the channel for lake vessels to pass.

Plan drawing of the Port Henry Drawboat

The Port Henry Drawboat completed the connection in the Port Henry Bridge. The bridge, built in 1871, was constructed for the iron mining companies in Port Henry, NY in order to transport iron ore mined in the hills behind Port Henry to the Crown Point furnaces. Unlike other contemporary steam-powered drawboats such as those at Rouses Point, NY and Ticonderoga, NY, the Port Henry drawboat was relatively small and manually operated. It was used for most of 1871 and then closed for the winter. The next spring it was found that ice had lifted all the piles under the trestle bridge. The damage forced the operators to abandon their small railroad; the drawboat was subsequently discarded.

The vessel is 250ft (76.2m) long, 34ft (10.4m) wide, and has a depth of approximately 9ft (2.7m). The vessel is in an excellent state of preservation, with nearly all of the wooden structure still present. The only portion of the vessel which shows signs of damage is the deck which has two 20 to 30ft (6.1 to 9.1m) long holes. Evidence that the drawboat was subject to some salvage prior to its abandonment is apparent in the lack of railroad tracks running down its length and the presence of bolts which once held large iron cleats or other deck features. Aside from the damage to the deck and the missing deck features the drawboat is in as-built condition.

The drawboat’s most interesting features are found on the deck at either end of the vessel. Four iron “channels” used to affix the drawboat to the trestle are located on the edge of the deck with one on each side of the barge and two located near the center of the deck. The channels were apparently the receptacle for a fitting on the fixed trestle, used to join the two together. The positioning of the channels indicates that the drawboat had two sets of tracks running its length; each set of tracks running in between an outside and inside channel. Other features on each end of the deck include three iron bollards and two iron fairleads. Presumably, these features were central in making the barge swing in and out of position. Abaft of each fairlead there are two large fasteners protruding from the deck that likely held a large iron cleat in place. The deck also has four hatches used to access the interior of the vessel. These small openings are surrounded by a low coaming. A visual inspection of the hull’s interior from one of these hatches revealed a wooden ladder and fore-and-aft bulkhead. (Image: Details of the bow of the Port Henry Drawboat.)

The Port Henry drawboat represents a unique feature of the Champlain Valley’s nineteenth century commercial history. Although this drawboat was only a footnote in local history, the story it tells is much larger. The submerged remains of the drawboat will help archaeologists and historians tell the story of the region’s iron mining history, of innovation in the industrial age, and the juxtaposition between the region’s lake commerce and railway system.

Information Source :
Kane, A. and C. Sabick, Lake Champlain Underwater Cultural Resources Survey, Volume IV: 1999 Results and Volume V: 2000 Results. Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, 2002.