Thursday, September 23, 2004


Historic wrecks beckon divers to Lake Champlain



By Wilson Ring, Associated Press

BENEATH BURLINGTON BAY, Vt. — Many of the bricks the canal schooner O.J. Walker was carrying when it sank a century ago in a Lake Champlain gale are still on deck today, stacked in recognizable, if falling over, piles.

Some are scattered off to the side of the boat in about 60 feet of water. The handcarts used to move the bricks and other cargo lay undisturbed on the muck alongside the boat. The boat itself sits upright, providing an underwater look into the 19th century commercial history of Lake Champlain. It's accessible to certified divers as part of a Lake Champlain underwater historic preserve, run by the states of Vermont and New York.

The wreck site is marked on the surface with a yellow buoy. The anchor chain leads to a concrete pad and from there another chain leads to the wreck itself, where divers are greeted by a sign that warns them to stay out of the wreck and that it's illegal to take artifacts off the wreck.

Art Cohn of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum helped create the underwater preserve and considers it to be an integral part of the ever-expanding system of museums and exhibits that can explain the long and rich history of Lake Champlain.

"Every one of these underwater sites connects us to a historic period and specific circumstances that is a really unique connection to the past," Cohn said.

The wrecks are owned by the states of Vermont and New York and it doesn't cost anything to dive to them. But divers need to register prior to using the underwater preserve and reserve a time slot in advance before exploring the O.J. Walker and the Water Witch, a barge that was carrying iron ore when it sank in an 1866 storm off Diamond Island in southern Lake Champlain.

Four of the eight preserve sites are near Burlington harbor, in the 19th century one of the most important commercial waterfronts in the country. Three others are in Vermont waters; one is in New York.

Cohn estimates there are about 30 additional wrecks in Lake Champlain that could eventually be added to the preserve system.

For scuba divers, the water in Lake Champlain isn't as cold as the North Atlantic, but it's not the Caribbean, either. Divers need a complete, cold-water wet suit that only leaves small parts of the face directly exposed to the water.

But the need for cold water diving gear means lake diving is as good in May or October as it is in July or August, when, for non-divers, the lake is not at its most swimmable.

The preserve opens in May and closes at the end of October when the buoys that mark the wrecks are pulled from the water.

Cohn, who has been diving in Lake Champlain for more than 30 years, said October was his favorite time for diving.

"There's nobody on the lake. The water is still warm," Cohn said. "The visibility is usually at its best and the foliage and grandeur of the surrounding environment is as good as it gets anywhere in the world."

The underwater preserve first opened in 1985 after Cohn and others realized that people would dive to the wrecks anyway and it would be best to control it.

"We were the first program in the country to provide mooring systems to make access to these sites safer, easier and less destructive to the wrecks," Cohn said. Since dive boats can tie up to the buoys, they don't need to drop an anchor that can damage the wreck. "I have to say that the dive community here has been extraordinarily supportive of this approach," Cohn said. "It was largely designed to run on good intentions by the dive community. Almost 20 years later I can say that that has been successful."

The O.J. Walker was carrying its load of bricks from Malletts Bay to Shelburne Farms in 1895 when it was caught in the gale. Rather than being piled in the hold, the bricks were stacked on deck, a labor-saving device for the crew that ended up costing them their boat.

The stresses of the top-heavy load caused the Walker to spring one of its planks. The boat partially capsized, spilling part of the load into the lake and then righting itself before sinking. The wreck now rests upright about three-quarters of a mile off the Burlington waterfront in about 65 feet of water.

The masts of the O.J. Walker still crisscross the deck where they fell when the boat hit bottom. Most of cargo was rectangular building bricks. Others are round, hollow drainage tiles.

The Walker was one of the vessels used by Cohn and the Maritime Museum to design the Lois McClure, the just-completed canal schooner that is once again plying the waters of Lake Champlain as a modern ambassador of 19th century commercial life on the lake.

In an ironic benefit to scuba divers, nonnative zebra mussels that are covering Lake Champlain and threatening the existence of the wrecks, are keeping the lake clearer than it used to be. Millions of zebra mussels strain the water.

It's not uncommon to find visibility of 30 to 40 feet on the Walker, unheard of before the mussels were first discovered in 1993, Cohn said.

But the zebra mussels are also covering the wrecks, prompting fears their weight could eventually collapse them. The process is accelerated by a chemical reaction caused by the mussels that is eating away at the iron pieces that hold the wooden boats together.

The General Butler is another wreck in the underwater preserve system. It's a canal schooner similar to the O.J. Walker that wrecked on the Burlington breakwater in an early winter storm in 1876. It's an easy dive, in only about 40 feet of water.

Farther north, off Colchester Shoal, lays the remains of the Phoenix, one of the first steamboats to sail on Lake Champlain. It caught fire during an overnight run between Plattsburgh, N.Y., and Burlington in 1819 and then was run up onto the shoal. Six people died.

After the accident, the Phoenix settled on the shoal where work crews managed to salvage the boilers. Cohn said it's believed that ice moved the Phoenix off the shoal to where it sank and rests today.

The stern of the Phoenix lies in more than 100 feet of water and at that depth Lake Champlain is dark. But the burn marks on the ribs of a vessel that sank more than 180 years ago can transport a diver back to the early 19th century.

Toby Talbot, AP
A diver prepares to explore
one of first underwater historic
preserves in the United States.

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