Profile and line drawing of the shipwreck Spitfire

Photogrammetry at the site of the Revolutionary War Gunboat Spitfire

By Chris Sabick, Director of Archaeology and Research

This summer, we received generous funding from the Champlain Valley National Heritage Partnership to create photogrammetry models of the Revolutionary War gunboat Spitfire. Photogrammetry is the practice of digitally stitching together photographs to create to-scale, three dimensional models. For us, photogrammetry is a unique way to interpret the stories of the Champlain Valley through the material culture left behind (shipwrecks!). And photogrammetry allows the Museum to make the stories of these vessels more accessible to the public, including non-divers and those outside of the Champlain valley.

Explore this example below of a photogrammetry model of another shipwreck in Lake Champlain, that of the canal schooner General Butler, to get a sense of how detailed this imaging work can be or head over to our SketchFab account to see our growing collection of models that we’ve created already.

In July, world renowned photogrammetry expert Dr. Kotaro Yamafune joined our team as we captured ROV based photography of both the Spitfire and the recently discovered paddlewheels from the steamboat Phoenix, which sank in September 1819.

Over 15 days on the water, we captured nearly 60,000 photographs of these sites. This feat was accomplished by mounting multiple cameras and lighting systems to our underwater drone. These cameras captured time-lapse photographs of the sites as they were scanned systematically by the ROV pilot.

After capturing the photographs, Dr. Yamafune trained the Museum team on best practices to create the most detailed, accurate models possible. We had a TON of photos, so putting those through the photogrammetry software was a bear. Just the first step of the process, aligning the photos into the “point cloud” – the initial 3D shape that will eventually be the model – took over 120 hours of processing time!

Given the staggering amount of data we’re working with, the final products aren’t quite ready yet. We’re looking forward to sharing them soon! For now, take a look at this very preliminary snapshot:

Many thanks to Gary and Ellen LeFebvre for the use of their boat, R/V Amazon to conduct this important research. Support for the Phoenix paddle wheels survey came from the Institute of Nautical Archaeology and carried out with under the direction of  Dr. George Schwarz Ph.D. and Dr. Kevin Crisman Ph.D. from Texas A&M University.

Stay tuned for more about our research on the gunboat Spitfire! We were recently awarded a National Park Service American Battlefield Protection Program grant to create a research design for future excavations at the site. The 250th anniversary of the Revolution is coming up quickly in 2026, and we’re looking forward to continuing to share the stories of the people who lived, fought, and died in the founding years of our nation.