Learning from Shipwrecks: A New Exhibit Showcases Canal Boat Stories from a Fresh Perspective

We are excited to announce today that on July 13, Lake Champlain Maritime Museum is opening a new exhibit that dives into the history of canal boats. Using research and artifacts recovered from shipwrecks in Lake Champlain by underwater archaeologists, as well as interviews with real people and interactive experiences, the exhibit will share lesser-known local stories of canal boats and the people who worked on board, providing unexpected points of connection for all with this key era of local history. The exhibit, titled Underwater Archaeology: Diving into the Stories of People and Canal Boats on Lake Champlain, will open to the public on July 13, 2024 and will be free to visit.

Canal boats are towed down Lake Champlain towards the canals. Credit: In Tow Down Lake Champlain, Postcard 340, circa 1900. Lake Champlain Maritime Museum Collection.

While the maritime industry of the 19th century was largely dominated by men, the canal boat community was strikingly different. Boats were often owned and operated by families who lived on board, combining work and home for men, women, and children, and building strong, connected communities with other canal boat families. For the Museum’s research and archaeology team, the work of excavating canal boat shipwrecks in Lake Champlain is a unique and special experience as they discover families’ home goods, toys, tools, and clothes as well as the cargo that canal boats were tasked with delivering.

The new exhibit experience invites visitors to immerse themselves in these stories and experience being an underwater archaeologist diving on a shipwreck to recover artifacts. Using 3D models of original artifacts, visitors can experience what it’s like to find an object in dark water by guessing what it is by touch alone. Through audio recordings of interviews with two women who grew up on canal boats, visitors can listen to first-person accounts of what life was like for children on these vessels, going to school in the winter, recreation, and more. A rich collection of objects including artifacts recovered from shipwrecks, ship models, and documents welcomes visitors to envision life on board for the diverse mix of people who lived and worked on canal boats.

The famous moment the sailing canal boat General Butler crashed on the Burlington breakwater. Artifacts from this shipwreck will be on display in the new exhibit. Credit: The General Butler on the Burlington Breakwater, 2000, Ernest Haas, Lake Champlain Maritime Museum Collection.
This cornet recovered from the shipwreck of the O.J. Walker helps us better understand the recreational side of canal boat life. Credit: Cornet and parts, O.J. Walker Collection, Lake Champlain Maritime Museum Collection.

Featured artifacts include a toy boat and woman’s overshoe recovered from the sailing canal boat General Butler shipwreck just off the Burlington breakwater, an iron kettle from the canal boat Vergennes, a 19th-century cornet from the sailing canal boat O.J. Walker, and more.

The exhibit will open on July 13, and we are holding two special events to celebrate this opening:

Exhibit Preview at the Museum After Hours Summer Party – Friday, July 12

All are invited to a special preview of this new exhibit at our annual Summer Party on Friday, July 12 at 5–8 pm. This evening event includes live music, local food, a raffle and silent auction, and after-hours access to the Museum. Tickets to the party and exhibit preview are available for purchase at www.lcmm.org/SummerParty.

A scale diagram of a canalboat from a birds-eye-view.

Collections Corner: Canal Boat Artifacts – Saturday, July 13

A free event on Saturday, July 13 from 11 am–1 pm for the public to view even more artifacts recovered from canal boats that couldn’t fit into the exhibit! Visitors will be able to speak with Museum experts, ask questions, and hear more stories uncovered through underwater archaeology. Event details are available at www.lcmm.org/collections-corner-canalboat-artifacts.

The new exhibit and the Museum will be open daily for the public to visit until the Museum closes for the season on October 20, 2024. Admission to Lake Champlain Maritime Museum is free for all visitors. Plan your visit at www.lcmm.org.