How We Got Here:
A Brief History of People & Water

Life in the Champlain Valley has always been deeply connected to the waters of Lake Champlain.

The 120-mile-long waterway of Lake Champlain has been a travel corridor since the earliest human occupation of the region. The lake has been essential to the establishment and prosperity of communities in the region throughout history, yet our industries and actions also have an impact on the water.

What was happening here before the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972?

Water is Life

The Indigenous communities of Lake Champlain have always had a strong relationship between the people and the water. The Abenaki community has been present in the region since time immemorial and continue to be a thriving Indigenous culture in the region.

As stewards of the environment, Native Americans have led and continue to advocate for clean water. The Abenaki people know how essential water is to foodways and everyday life.

Nebizun is the Abenaki word for medicine. The root of that word, Nebi, is the Abenaki word for water.

Above image: Vera Longtoe Sheehan makes a traditional fish net.

The Ojihozo Creation Story

As told by Joseph Bruchac

Listen. Long ago, when Tabaldak, the Owner, had finished making things, some of the dust of creation was still on the Owner’s hands. So Tabaldak began to brush that dust away. It sprinkled down upon the earth. Where it fell upon the earth, the earth began to move about. It began to shape itself. It shaped itself a torso. It shaped itself a head. It shaped itself shoulders, arms and hands; it shaped itself hips. Then that earth which shaped itself sat up. Awani gia? said Tabaldak. Who are you? Ojihozo nia, said that earth which shaped itself. I am Ojihozo. I am the One Gathering Himself Together. You are very wonderful, said Tabaldak. Nda, said Ojihozo. No. You are the one who is wonderful. You are the one who sprinkled me.

Then Ojihozo looked around. All around was the beauty of the newly created earth. And Ojihozo became eager to get up and see it. But, like a small child eager to walk before he can run, Ojihozo did not notice that he was not yet ready to walk. He had not yet shaped legs and feet. He was still connected to the earth. So Ojihozo tried to stand. He pushed very hard to one side and he did not move. He pushed harder and harder, so hard that the earth was pushed up into mountains. Those mountains today are called the Green Mountains. But still he could not stand. Then Ojihozo pushed very hard to the other side. He pushed so hard that the earth rose up into mountains on that side, too. Today those mountains are called the Adirondacks. But still he could not stand. Now Ojihozo reached out his long arms. He reached all the way to the mountaintops to either side of him. Then he pulled, trying to pull himself up. His fingers gouged down the channels of the rivers. Otter Creek, the Winooski, the Lamoille and all the other rivers were formed then. But still he could not stand. Then Ojihozo saw that Tabaldak was looking at him. Tabaldak looked at him with that look of patience a parent shows when a child does something wrong but that parent is determined to let the child learn through his own mistake. Ojihozo looked at himself then. He saw that he was still connected to the earth. He did not have legs or feet yet.

Then Ojihozo reached down. He shaped legs and feet for himself. Then he stood. And when he stood, he left behind him a great hole in the earth. The waters flowed in and made that hole into a big lake. It is called Bitawbagok, The Waters In Between, by the Dawnland People, though on the maps it is called Lake Champlain. If you look at a map, you can see the shape there of a sitting person, his legs toward the north. That is the shape of Ojihozo. Then Ojihozo walked around. He walked around for a long time seeing many things. But when he was done, he returned to the beautiful lake and the beautiful mountains he had made. This was where he wished to stay. He sat down upon a small island and changed himself into stone. He sits there to this day, watching over the mountains and the lake. So the story goes.

Image: Francine Poitras Jones, Water is Life, Acrylic on canvas, 2018.

The Industrial Era Impacts the Water

The 1800s brought industrialization and commerce, as well as pollution and harm to the shores of Lake Champlain. As our nation emerged from the War of 1812, we went through a series of economic changes that dramatically changed our physical and economic landscapes and had severe consequences for our water.

As the 19th century ended, almost every aspect of life in and around Lake Champlain had changed. Local community markets transformed into distant national ones. The Atlantic salmon that once densely populated the lake disappeared, along with the forest surrounding the lake. In the wake of these changes, an early conservation movement formed that would set the stage for years to come.

Above image: William Montgomery on the stern of the schooner J.P. Howard, circa 1880. Courtesy Isle La Motte Historical Society.

The Introduction of the Canal System

In the early 1800s, the exchange of goods occurred in local markets and communities. Some towns, like Burlington, used horse-drawn transportation and carriages to take their goods to other communities and distant markets, but these transportation methods were slow and costly. As populations were booming by the mid-1800s, the demand for a variety of products increased, creating a need for faster and cheaper transportation methods.

In 1823, New York state opened the Champlain Canal, linking Lake Champlain with the Hudson River, opening a new world of markets and dramatically decreasing the cost of shipping. In 1825, the Erie Canal opened, connecting New York City and the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes, ushering in a new era of international and national economic production and trade where products and people were more tightly connected than ever before. The swiftness of canal transportation and the enticing potential for profit wrought physical changes on the landscape of Lake Champlain and its inhabitants. Dams, mills, mines, furnaces, charcoal kilns, and farms were built and opened to satisfy the growing demand on the region for products. This new infrastructure relied on the resources of the water and Champlain Valley forests to sustain its enterprises. Steamboats and canal boats regularly traveled up and down the lake ready to deliver products and people to distant markets and places.

Image: Canal Boats in Tow, circa 1890. Photograph by Howard Pyle, courtesy Fort Ticonderoga.

The Loss of Salmon and Other Consequences

The physical and social changes created by increased transportation and resource extraction had a negative impact on the water quality of Lake Champlain. Deforestation, pollution, runoff, the dumping of waste, and the change in water current affected the water quality and ecological systems and harmed plant and animal life.

One species significantly affected by these changes were salmon. Early travelers noted Atlantic salmon living and reproducing in Lake Champlain for centuries before the 1800s. By 1838, one writer noted the salmon, “had abandoned all the waters of the Champlain system.” The infrastructure that had positively served the growing economy had destroyed the ability of the salmon to live in Lake Champlain. Dams prevented the salmon from being able to reproduce in streams. The loss of trees increased the runoff from the mountains and the land, and mills dumped waste into the lake, polluting the waters. Economic and social expansion came at the cost of environmental damage.

Image: Salmon swimming upstream, Robert W. Hines, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Early Conservation Movement

The loss of species such as salmon, poor water quality, and the changing physical landscape alarmed citizens, writers, and scientific researchers. Travelers, conservationists, and naturalists, such as Zaddock Thompson, DeWitt Clinton, Charles Sprague Sargent, and George Perkins Marsh, recorded their observations of the lake and its inhabitants for scientific reports. They connected industrialization with the environmental changes and damaged ecosystems, a scientific understanding of the world that would launch the early conservation movement.

Local and state governments also took notice of the changes and used these reports to create their own agencies to reverse the harm done to the environment. Quebec, Vermont, and New York established fish commissions to regulate fishing in Lake Champlain. The federal government soon followed, creating the Federal Commission for Fish and Fisheries in 1871 to protect fish in lakes and rivers across the United States. New York also passed two bills in 1892 and 1894 to create the Adirondack Park and designate it as “forever wild” to protect the region’s waterways and forests.

Image: 1891 map of proposed Adirondack “Blue Line.” Photo courtesy of DEC.

Environmental Disasters Meet Protests and Civic Action

As the nation moved through the 20th century, a series of devastating environmental events shined a light on the present and increasing need to protect the nation’s waterways, including Lake Champlain. People joined together at the local, state, and federal levels to push for new regulations to protect the environment, leading to the Clean Water Act in 1972.

In the Champlain Valley during the first half of the 20th century, ongoing scientific research was documenting the impact of pollution on Lake Champlain, but little political action was taken on water quality. In 1905, following a series of complaints from residents about the discharge of waste into Lake Champlain from mills, the Department of the Interior commissioned a report on pollution in the lake. The report detailed a series of concerns about the declining water quality and issued a dire warning to Burlington residents. Without any sewage treatment plants, they discharged their raw waste directly into the lake. As the investigator bluntly stated, the residents of Burlington were, “drinking from their own cesspool.”

Clean water efforts were gaining attention as their impacts affected the lives of people living in the region.

Image: Photograph from Preliminary Report on the Pollution of Lake Champlain, Government Printing Office, 1905.

Huron River Protest

As the quality of water worsened in waterways across the nation, citizens protested the inaction of their government officials and called upon them to pass legislation to limit discharge and toxic waste in the water. In Michigan, activists showed up on March 14, 1970, to protest the pollution of the Huron River.

Image: Huron River protest. Courtesy of Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

IPC Old Winter Mill

In operation since the late 1800s, International Paper Co’s (IPC) Ticonderoga Creek paper had consistently dumped runoff and sludge into the lake causing pollution and harming the ecosystem. In 1970, then Vermont Attorney General, and future Senator, Jim Jeffords spearheaded legal efforts against IPC, who argued that they were not the only manufacturer contributing to pollution in New York and so should not face financial repercussions. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court and ended in a settlement. IPC paid $750,000 and Vermont used the money to create a fund to monitor the environmental practices of IPC’s new paper mill. Over the last 40 years, IPC has faced additional protests and lawsuits targeted at its environmental violations.

Image: IPC Old Winter Mill. Image courtesy of Bill Dolback/Ticonderoga Historical Society.

Cuyahoga River on Fire

By the end of the 1960s, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio was polluted with thick dark oil, bubbling at the top. It had repeatedly caught fire throughout the 1800s and 1900s due to the increasing industrialization of the area, including the fire pictured here on November 3, 1952. Time magazine reported on yet another river fire on June 22, 1969, and used this photo. The report horrified the nation and galvanized the government into creating the Environmental Protection Agency and would lead to the Clean Water Act.

Image: Cuyahoga River on fire in 1952. Courtesy of Cleveland Press Collection at the Cleveland State University Library. Photo by Frank Aleksandrov, from the Cleveland Press Collections, courtesy of the Michael Schwartz Library Special Collections, Cleveland State University.


In the mid-1900s, a series of severe environmental disasters and growing public anxiety about air and water pollution nationally led President Richard Nixon to propose the creation of a new executive agency, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Approved in 1970, the EPA consolidated the government’s environmental duties under one authority and streamlined consistent policies aimed at protecting the environment.

Image: The EPA Seal