Sailing Canal Boat Troy (Wreck SS)

During the sonar portion of the 1999 survey researchers anticipated locating the remains of Troy, an early sailing canal boat lost en route to Westport, New York in November 1825. Despite the crew’s meticulous work, no targets were located that seemed to fit the general profile expected of this vessel. Upon completion of the survey area, the acoustic data was reexamined, leading researchers to suspect that an acoustic target, initially believed to be geologic in nature, could be Troy. The target was initially discounted because it projected approximately 30ft (9.1m) off the bottom. Shipwrecks tend to be in an upright orientation, resulting in a cresentic-shaped acoustic return projecting only a few feet off the bottom. This acoustic image did not fit this model; however, its position was consistent with the expected location of the vessel and the surrounding area did not reveal any other more promising targets.

Perspective drawing of Troy. By Kevin Crisman.

In August of 1999 the anomaly was verified. The anomaly was indeed Troy; however, vessel was more interesting, peculiar and significant than the Lake Survey crew had hoped. The verification revealed that Troy was remarkably intact with its bow section stuck fast in the bottom, while the transom was suspended approximately 30ft (9.1m) above the lake-bed.

History of Troy

The opening of the Northern Canal in 1823 connecting Lake Champlain and the Hudson River created dynamic new commercial opportunities along the waterway. New watercraft were built to accommodate the rapidly rising volume of trade and a new vessel design, the Lake Champlain sailing-canal boat was invented. The first generation of sailing-canal boats were built as an experiment, designed to sail on the lake like a sailboat and, upon reaching the canal, to raise the centerboard, lower the mast(s) and transform into a standard canal boat to be towed on the canal. Not until the discovery of the Troy had maritime researchers seen an example of this early design of vessel.

Troy disappeared en route to Westport, New York in 1825 during a November gale, taking with it five young men and boys. The vessel was sailing to Westport with a load of iron ore for the newly established Westport iron furnace. The schooner, under the command of 25-year-old Captain Jacob Halstead, was carrying the Captain’s 13-year-old brother, George, his half brother Jacob Pardee, and two crewman, Daniel Cannon and John Williams. As the Troy sailed, a gale engulfed the ship, perhaps shifting the cargo. A newspaper account reported that “The boat was seen by two persons on shore… a few minutes before she went down; one of whom, as we are informed, anticipating she was in distress, contemplated going in a gondola to assist the crew, but the other, devoid of every humane feeling refusing to lend any assistance…” (North Star 13 December 1825). Back on shore, the boys’ “mother and sisters [were] sitting at home…listening through the storm for the sound of homecoming footsteps as the night wore on. Suddenly they heard the boys on the doorsteps, stomping off the snow in the entry as they were wont to do before coming in. The women sprang to the door and opened it, stepped to the outer door and looked down upon the light carpet of untrodden snow which lay before it, and then crept trembling back to the fireside, knowing that son and brothers would never sit with them again within its light” (from Caroline Royce, History of Westport, Essex County, 1904.)

Over the next few days the telltale signs of tragedy began to appear on the shore. The “captain’s hat, trunk and pocketbook . . . have been picked up but none of the bodies have yet been found.” (North Star13 December 1825)

Today, the incident that produced such a profound sorrow for the communities of Westport and Basin Harbor has all but been forgotten. One of the few reminders is a memorial stone placed in the Westport Town Cemetery; it bears this inscription:

Sacred to
the Memory of
Capt Jacob Halstead
AE. 25 years
and his brother
George Halstead
AE 13 years
Sons of John & Phebe
who were lost together
with three others the
rest of the crew of the
Schooner Troy
in a gale of wind
off Westport
Nov 23, 1825

Sonar image of Troy.

Archaeology of Troy

In the fall of 1999 the LCMM videotaped the site using an ROV. This information shed tremendous light on the vessel’s loss and its construction. Contemporary accounts speculated that the iron ore in the hold had shifted during the gale, causing the vessel to founder. The archaeological evidence supports this theory. The heavy winds and seas of the storm probably caused Troy to heel over much farther than anticipated by the crew, causing the ore to tumble towards that side of the hull. The vessel became increasingly unmanageable.

As the first wave crested into the main hatch the crew must have realized that their situation was desperate. Additional waves continued to fill the hull. In a matter of only a few minutes, the vessel was swamped and the fate of its crew sealed. The bow, since more of the ore was stored in the forward half of the canal boat, was the first part of the vessel to sink below the waves. With the bow angled downward, iron rushed into the forward end of the hull, shattering any timber or other object that might have been it its way. Pulled by thousands of pounds of ore the rest of vessel was quickly submerged. The descent to the lakebed was a rapid, steeply angled ride which ended abruptly as the bow plowed into the soft bottom sediments. The shock caused the masts to break from their tabernacles sending a cascade of rigging, spars, and sails toward the bow and onto the lakebed. More iron ore was also forced forward, creating a tremendous weight of material in bow. The ore acted as an anchor to hold the vessel in its seemingly precarious position.

The tabernacle of Troy.

The crew certainly drowned during this episode; however, it is unknown if their remains are still contained within the hull, or if they were washed overboard. It is unlikely that any of the older crewman were below decks during the gale; all hands would have been needed on deck to try and sail the schooner. As the canal boat sank, these persons were probably washed free of the vessel, but were overcome within minutes by hypothermia from the near freezing lakewater; their bodies never recovered. Perhaps the younger members of the crew were below decks, succumbing to lack of oxygen as the vessel sank to the bottom rather than freezing to death.

Troy is the only example of an early sailing-canal boat ever located. It is an extremely important link in the evolution of Lake Champlain commercial vessel design, and may be the oldest vessel in the world ever located equipped with a centerboard. A more detailed study of the site will lead to a greater understanding of the evolution of sailing canal boats and of early nineteenth century lake commerce. Future archaeological studies must be mindful that the site may contain the remains of her young crew. 

For further information see:
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.