Sailing Canal Boat O.J. Walker Collection

Inking, or drawing, of the ship's wheel of sailing canal boat O.J. Walker
Caption: Inking of Ship’s Wheel, Sailing Canal Boat O.J. Walker Collection, Lake Champlain Maritime Museum

Collection Summary

  • Dates: 1862-1895
  • Size: 4 boxes; several flat file drawers
  • Media: paper; photographs; video; archaeologically recovered material (wood; iron; ceramic)
  • Language: English
  • Subjects: Canal Era
  • Related Publications: The Lake Champlain Sailing Canal Boat (Cozzi, Texas A&M Dissertation, 2000). Underwater Preserve Feasibility Study of the Lake Champlain Canal Schooner O.J. Walker (VT-CH-594) Burlington, Chittenden County, Vermont (Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, 1996).
  • Access and Use: Some materials in the Sailing Canal Boat O.J. Walker Collection, especially the cornet, are extremely fragile and should be handled with care.

Scope and Content

The O.J. Walker Collection contains the assembled archaeological research files and artifacts recovered during the various archaeological investigations of the O.J. Walker site, which consists of an 1862-class sailing canal boat and its immediate surroundings resting in 65 feet of water in Burlington Bay. Documentation of the site includes records from its rediscovery during a 1983 sonar survey of Burlington Bay, Joseph Robert Cozzi’s review of the site for his dissertation at Texas A&M University in 1995, and the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum’s Underwater Preserve Feasibility Study of the Lake Champlain Canal Schooner O.J. Walker (VT-CH-594) in 1996. Archaeological divers excavated the vessel and mitigated risk for opening the O.J. Walker site as an underwater historic preserve shortly after the feasibility study was completed. The Sailing Canal Boat O.J. Walker Collection contains over 200 items of various media, as well as hundreds of field notes, drawings, inkings, photographs, and video recordings of the site and artifacts recovered. Artifacts of note include representative pieces of the brick and tile deck cargo on board when the vessel sank; a cornet; a handcart; several complete pieces of ceramic dishware; an oil lamp knob; and several sail grommet fragments. Recovered archaeological artifacts were conserved in-house at the Museum. Several large artifacts, including some of the cargo and a second handcart, remain on the site. The public is reminded that it is illegal to move or remove artifacts from any archaeological site.

Much is known about the O.J. Walker, which was named for the prominent freight businessman Obadiah Johnson Walker, and since it was a sailing canal boat that continued in use after most similar vessels had been converted to towed boats. This transition in canal boat history was due to the use of newly prominent steam tugs that could consistently bring goods to market quickly. O.J. Walker was constructed by successful shipwright, Orson Spear and evidence of the vessel’s various changes in ownership over its 33 year career, and records of its sinking in 1895 are heavily documented in the historical record (Spear’s business ledgers from this period are included in the Crosby Collection, Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, Vergennes, VT). It is worth special mention that when the vessel’s second to last owner passed away, his daughter Mrs. Rock (her first name is, to date, unknown) became the only woman at that time to command a commercial canal-going vessel on the lake. Mrs. Rock was not on board the day the vessel sank, and fortunately, no lives were lost during the “once in a generation” storm on May 11, 1895, which brought the O.J. Walker to rest on the bottom of Lake Champlain.

The extensive historical record, as well as the archaeological documentation of the vessel and access to the extant remains as an underwater historic preserve, make the O.J. Walker an ideal example of the operations of sailing canal boats and lives of people on board these vessels in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

The archaeological examinations of this site, as well as those of the General Butler were used as references in the construction of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum’s sailing canal boat replica, Lois McClure.

Citation Recommendation

Sailing Canal Boat O.J. Walker Collection, Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, Vergennes, VT.

There are no known copyright restrictions related to this material.


Canal; canal boat; Burlington Bay; brick; tile; Canal Era; shipwreck; archaeology; canal families; Orson Spear; Obadiah Johnson Walker; Museum-generated research; Museum-conserved artifacts

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