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History Happened Here

A Great Lake

June 2024
6min read


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.

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!”


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.


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