- Historic Sites
A Great Lake
EARLY NAVAL HISTORY AND TODAY’S URBAN ENERGY ON CHAMPLAIN’S SHORES
September 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 6
Today the handsome red-brick mill, occupying a prime riverfront site overlooking the falls, houses a mall. Despite its collection of attractive, locally owned shops, a well-stocked bookstore, and a small museum that tells its history, the place seemed sadly underpopulated the afternoon I was there. Outside, a couple of young boys on bikes were racing along the pleasant and shady riverwalk. One of them, speaking like a Chamber of Commerce stalwart (or maybe Ira Alien), informed the other: “This is supposed to be one of the most scenic rivers in Vermont.” So take it from the kid: Don’t miss Winooski.
Ira’s hotheaded brother is best known for helping wrest Fort Ticonderoga from the British in 1775 and for his leadership of the Vermont militia, the Green Mountain Boys. His final home lies on a bend in the Winooski River. For just two years before his death, in 1789, Ethan Alien lived in the four-room frame structure, which is simple to the modern eye but was lavish for its time and is notable because it has its original foundation, walls, and even floorboards. Until 1987 it was continuously occupied by various farm families. The last owner, a grain company, planned to sell the property to a builder of condominiums. At that point, Ralph Nading Hill, a Vermont historian who led many preservation battles, jumped in to save the house, which is now a national historic site.
On the grounds is a museum that doesn’t entirely celebrate the mythic Ethan Alien. He “is one of the biggest mysteries in American history,” I read on a sign. To posterity, “Ethan came across as a feisty Revolutionary War hero with a heart of gold. The cunning Yankee real estate speculator and tavern brawler virtually disappeared.”
One reason for this is Alien’s view of himself. In his self-aggrandizing memoir he recalls telling the commander at Ticonderoga that he was seizing the post “in the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress.” An eyewitness account of the actual words rings with real life: “Come out of here, you damned old rat!”
A SONAR SURVEY RECENTLY LOCATED THE LAST MISSING GUNBOAT OF ARNOLD’S NAVY, LYING JUST BELOW THE SPOT WHERE IT WAS LOST.
To spend time in and around Burlington is to become increasingly charmed by Lake Champlain; its beauty flows into sight at every turn. So it’s well worth a 30-mile drive south to the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum to learn more of its story, from its 1609 discovery by Samuel de Champlain to its role in our military history and its later setting as a center for steamboating and pleasure craft. The outdoor museum, on a piece of land that rambles down to the lake, holds exhibits in a dozen structures, including an 1818 stone schoolhouse. The centerpiece is a 54-foot replica of Benedict Arnold’s gunboat Philadelphia II , which is rigged, armed, and afloat in a narrow cove. The original boat was part of the small navy Arnold cobbled together to fight the Battle of Valcour Island in 1776, producing, on a schedule reminiscent of World War II’s Liberty ships, almost a vessel a week.
In his book Major Operations of the Navies in the War of American Independence , Alfred Thayer Mahan spoke of “the indomitable courage [of] the traitor, Benedict Arnold,” in holding off the British in America’s first naval engagement, thus buying the Continental cause another year. At the museum, which lies close to where these events played out, Arnold is given his due, if not more. In a film about the battle, a crusty old New Englander tells a young officer, “You don’t know a damn thing about Arnold. If it weren’t for [him] we wouldn’t have a navy.”
His Philadelphia II sank at Valcour Island, was raised from the lake in 1935, and is today on display at the Smithsonian. Disturbing the slumber of old ships isn’t so popular these days, as a museum exhibit explains: “It is now clear that raising historic wooden watercraft without plans for conservation destabilizes them and usually leads to their destruction.” A lake-wide sonar survey the museum recently sponsored located the last missing gunboat of Arnold’s navy, lying untouched below the spot where it was lost. It will stay there, along with a vast collection of other wooden ships that rest beneath the waters of what is indisputably a very great lake.