A Great Lake

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In February 1998, Vermont’s senator Patrick Leahy attached a few words to a bill pending in Congress: “The term ‘Great Lakes’ includes Lake Champlain.” With President Clinton’s signature, Champlain became the sixth Great Lake—and eligible for federal research funds. Some representatives of the states alongside the other five bodies of water didn’t like this one bit. SENATOR SNEAKS IN A SIXTH GREAT LAKE ran one newspaper headline, and Ohio’s senator John Glenn spoke out: “I know the Great Lakes. I’ve traveled the Great Lakes. And Lake Champlain is not one of the Great Lakes.” Barely a month later, the Senate voted to revoke the lake’s new status, but a compromise allowed for grants to study the ecology of what no one denies is America’s most historic body of water. Champlain was the site of an important offensive naval action by American forces in the Revolution and today holds the nation’s foremost collection of underwater historic shipwrecks.

Lake Champlain flows north from Whitehall, New York, draining from Quebec’s Richelieu River into the St. Lawrence. New York is on one side; Vermont, specifically what is known locally as Vermont’s West Coast, is on the other. The region’s biggest city is Burlington, Vermont, “the happening place in modernday Vermont,” according to one guidebook, and an excellent headquarters for exploring the lake and discovering its role as a highway of American history. “You can go anywhere in the world on Lake Champlain,” boasts the captain of the Ethan Alien II , a 500-passenger excursion vessel based on Burlington’s waterfront.

The lively waterfront itself is something to brag about. Its marina is filled with gently bobbing sailboats, and a beautifully landscaped promenade leads to miles of hiking and hiking paths along the shoreline. Among several places to enjoy a bite to eat and a view of the rugged Adirondacks across the water is a Queen Anne-style floating boathouse.

Here is a model of how a city can open up its waters to its people, as many are trying to do these days. According to a plaque at the entrance, the lakeside park, only 10 years old, was created when Burlington bought derelict land long owned by the Vermont Central Railroad. This was the site of the city’s first settlement, in 1790, a few houses huddled at the foot of Battery Street (then named Water) when everything else was still forest.

From the bounty of trees came the lumber and boatbuilding enterprises that shaped the Champlain Basin’s early fortunes. By the 1860s, Burlington was the third-largest sawmill center in the nation, having received a boost with the opening of the Champlain Canal in 1823 and, later, a rail system. When train service sputtered out in 1953, it left the waterfront something of a wasteland, punctuated by grain towers and fuel storage tanks. Rotting piers poked out into the water, and abandoned rail yards choked the shore.

On a sunny September morning, I could see that the old industrial buildings and the 1920s railroad station had been rehabbed to emerge as artists’ studios, eating places, a fitness center, and most notably an excellent marine science center. All signs of decay had been scrubbed away, perhaps overly so. The last remaining grain tower came down a few weeks after my visit, provoking opposition from those who thought it should stand—even empty—as a reminder of Burlington’s industrial past.

From the lakefront, Burlington climbs a hill. A 20-minute walk up College Street takes you past several handsome blocks of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century commercial buildings, the popular Church Street pedestrian mall, the small, verdant City Hall Park, and an abundance of intriguing restaurants, clubs, and shops. A stroll through Burlington reveals a very pleasing dinosaur: a small New England city with a thriving downtown. Much of this is supported by what stands at the top of the hill, the University of Vermont. Founded in 1791, it was among the first American universities to take advantage of the Land Grant College Act of 1862. The campus is home to many striking Victorian and Romanesque public buildings, and the surrounding streets are filled with elaborate mansions that once belonged to haute Burlington’s lumber barons, lawyers, and politicians. Most have been converted to fraternity houses and apartments.

With five colleges and universities nearby, a youthful spirit infuses Burlington. One of the signs I saw posted around town asked for help in locating a missing pet, a ferret named Delila, and another announced an “egalitarian block dance to celebrate the end of class distinction.” For years, city government was in the hands of a Socialist mayor, Bernie Sanders, and Burlington is where both the rock group Phish and the egalitarian ice-cream magnates Ben and Jerry got their start.

Much of the land the university sits on was originally owned by Ira Alien, a brother of Ethan. The two, along with other siblings, had first come here from Connecticut in the 17605. Ira was the successful entrepreneur, speculator, or visionary, depending on the interpretation; Ethan, the Revolutionary War hero. Together they bought up some 300,000 acres of farm and forest around Burlington to form the Onion River Land Company. Ira set about building a dam on the Winooski River, two miles north of Burlington, to power first a forge and gristmill and subsequently a woolens factory that flourished for the better part of a century, drawing thousands of immigrants to its employ.