Pin It

Schooner or Later: Rebuilding a bygone boat on Lake Champlain 

click to enlarge MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen

I’m in trouble from the start. I’ve come to the Burlington Shipyard to learn how to build a 19th-century canal schooner, and maybe lend a hand. The Lake Champlain Maritime Museum is spending the next year assembling a replica of the type of boat that once made Burlington a hub of mercantile traffic. They want volunteers to help them — even novices like me.

So I strike up a conversation with one of the boatbuilders, an amiable man from Williston named Steve Page. He’s carefully measuring and marking what look like long wooden beams. “What are you doing?” I ask.

Without looking up, he starts to explain: “The mortis timbers have to be mortised into the chine logs.” Noticing my silence, Page clarifies, “We’re just about ready to bolt this thing together.”


“This thing” is the underbelly of what will be the Lois McClure, an 88-foot-long canal schooner. Laying the keel — I think that’s what you call it — is just the beginning. The Lois McClure won’t be completed until fall 2003, and won’t take its, er, her maiden voyage until spring 2004, when a small crew will sail the schooner to historic spots along the lake and then down to New York City.

When she returns to Burlington, the boat will serve as a northern outpost for the Maritime Museum, which is less conveniently located in North Ferrisburgh. But even during her construction, she’ll be open to the public.

If you visit the shipyard, you’ll find an open-sided metal shed with a concrete floor festooned with large chunks of wood that appear purposefully laid out — even to a landlubber like me. The work area is cordoned off with ropes, but visitors can get a good view of what the boatbuilders are doing. Displays along two of the building’s three inside walls illustrate Lake Champlain’s history as a shipping corridor, and underwater videos show two of the less fortunate ships that lie on the lake’s bottom.

The Lois McClure is based on those doomed vessels, which doesn’t exactly give you faith in her future. But then, the older boats’ fates were not completely unexpected. “They were worked hard,” explains Elisa Nelson, an interpreter at the shipyard. “When they sank, they sank, and the owners built another. This was business.”

And business required sturdy boats, not pretty ones. “She’s a barge,” boatbuilder Rob Thompson says flatly of the Lois McClure. “I like her profile, but she isn’t shapely.”

Looks be damned, he’s still excited to be building her. “We’re working on a scale that I never get to work on,” says Thompson, who usually builds boats less than a quarter this size.

Even Paul Rollins, a veteran boatbuilder from York, Maine, who was hired to direct the construction, declares it a great gig. “This is an interesting project because it is absolutely unique,” he says. “No other boats like this are being built.”

One reason might be that boats like this don’t come cheap. The Lois McClure’s budget is $1.2 million, a little more than $750,000 of which has been raised. The largest gift, $500,000, came from local philanthropists J. Warren and Lois McClure — hence the name. The project also received major support from the Robert Flem-ing and Jane Howe Patrick Foundation and a VTrans Federal Enhancement grant, and it got free use of the shipyard from the Lake Champlain Transportation Company.

To help raise the rest, the museum is looking for community members to ‘sponsor’ various parts of the boat. Five hundred dollars will buy you one of the boat’s ribs, $1000 will get you a plank, $7500 a mast.

“The wheel is the big one,” says Mike Lavecchia, the project’s coordinator. “That’s a hundred thou.”

Looking at it, you can see why. The wheel is the only fancy part of the boat. It is large and gorgeously polished, and it resembles the ones you’ve seen in old pirate movies. The wheel is part of the boat’s steering mechanism, which is menacingly — though accurately — called a shin-cracker system. It’s mounted on a chunk of wood the size of a house beam, which is bolted to a large post, allowing the beam to swivel a few inches above the deck.

Nelson shows me how to use the wheel, which is installed in a mockup of the Lois McClure’s stern. “It is almost like dancing,” she says, turning the wheel and taking a couple of waltzlike side steps as the beam pivots toward her.

Those better be quick steps if the boat gets hit by a big wave and you aren’t holding tight onto the wheel. “We have a feeling that ‘shin-cracker’ might have been a euphemism for a broken leg,” Nelson confides.

Even if the steering system does have it in for her shins, Nelson admires the boats. “These were the tractor trailers of their day, and the lake was their highway,” she says.

Canals built both north and south of Lake Champlain during the early 1800s put the lake on the path to just about anywhere that counted — New York, Phil-adelphia, Montréal, Ottawa. The innovative schooners could slip through the canal locks and make the entire trip by water. That meant that hauling goods to, say, New York no longer required a horse-drawn wagon to bridge the gap between lakes and rivers. So the typical travel time from Burlington to New York dropped from about 30 days to as few as 10.

Some shippers attempted even longer trade routes. One enterprising captain even sailed two canal schooners to New Orleans. “It probably took them the entire year,” says Scott McLaughlin, an archaeologist with the Maritime Museum. “I guess they wanted to go to Mardi Gras.”

Although the new canals could take you seemingly anywhere, traveling through them wasn’t cheap. Canal operators charged stiff tolls. Boat companies responded by building vessels that barely squeaked through the canals, and they crammed as much cargo in them as would fit. When the holds were full, they stacked mounds of cargo on deck.

This rough treatment meant that boats were usually in service for only 15 to 30 years. The O.J. Walker — one of the vessels on which the Lois McClure is modeled — was long-lived for a canal boat. Launched in 1862, she survived until May 11, 1895, when she ran into a particularly severe windstorm, sprang a leak and went down in 60 feet of water at the north end of Burlington’s breakwater. Her crew made it safely to shore in a lifeboat but would have had an easier time if, in their panic, they hadn’t forgotten the oars.

The General Butler didn’t live nearly so long. Also built in ’62, she was operated for 14 years until her steering mechanism broke and she was dashed against the south end of the breakwater during a nasty December gale. The captain, his daughter, a friend and a deckhand jumped onto the icy breakwater — and fortunately they were rescued by an alert lighthouse keeper.

Lake Champlain has engendered lots of drama, but I haven’t come to the shipyard just to hear good stories. I want to feel what it was like to work on one of these boats, see the wood curl up under my chisel, the sawdust spew from my saw.

Boatbuilding holds an allure because it is so foreign to me. First off — how should I put this? — I’m one of those guys who didn’t exactly excel in shop class. Unless you’re talking about computers, hardware befuddles me. And when it comes to old-fashioned tools, forget it. I wouldn’t know my adze from my elbow.

The nautical thing is also lost on me. I prefer mountains. I’ve been sailing maybe four times, tops. My best qualification is that I’ve read most of Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring novels.

But I’m here to offer my services nonetheless. When I ask what I can do to be helpful, Steve Page seems flummoxed. It’s not a really good day, I’m told, because he, the other boatbuilders and several volunteers with actual skills are still meticulously laying out the boat’s bottom. I can understand his quandary; nobody seems to be doing anything I can understand. Just measuring things in preparation for mortising the chine logs, I suppose.

Then Page has an idea. I can use an electric Sawz-all to cut down the bolts to be used in the hull. It seems like an important task; after all, I do know that bolts hold things together. But I’d prefer to use authentic period tools, so I ask for another job.

After a moment, Page decides to set me up with a draw knife, which resembles a long straight-edge razor with two handles. Then he clamps a wooden block to a bench and asks me to smooth it into a handle for a peavey, a metal spiked tool the boatbuilders use to roll large pieces of lumber.

Realizing that I’m being set to work on a piece that will never be part of the finished boat, I’m both disappointed and relieved. I may not be remaking history, but at least I won’t be screwing it up.

Any disappointment dissolves as I get into the groove, repeatedly pulling the knife across ridges in the wood and watching them smooth away to nothing. Maybe my shop teacher was wrong: I can learn woodworking. It’s just me and the wood, a Zen sort of thing. But this isn’t exactly the kind of relationship 19th-century boatbuilders and sailors must have had with their crafts. For them, these boats were a way to make money, and for many they became their life.

Teen-agers would sign on to work as deckhands, hoping eventually to earn enough money to buy their own boats. Married captains often brought their whole families on board. Wives maintained and cleaned the boats and mended clothing and sails. They also fed their families, along with any crew, even the mule driver who pulled the boats through the canals.

The youngsters would paint the boats, scrub the decks and work the pumps when necessary, which was often.

That left steering, doing heavy repairs, mending lines and filling out paperwork to the captain.

The building of the Lois McClure has brought canal schooners more attention than they’ve had in more than a century. McLaughlin, the Maritime Museum archaeologist, has researched the boats’ era and found that boatmen didn’t arouse much community interest then, either. “They provide an important service, transporting goods to and from the Champlain Valley, but just like today’s truck drivers, nobody really pays much attention,” he says.

Which is how the boatbuilders treat me while I whittle away on that handle. I take it as a compliment that they don’t think I need fussing over, and I begin to feel at home. It’s an odd feeling, especially when I’m surrounded by guys who probably did really well in shop — and like water.

Got something to say? Send a letter to the editor and we'll publish your feedback in print!


Pin It

More by Mark Bushnell

About The Author

Mark Bushnell


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Seven Days moderates comments in order to ensure a civil environment. Please treat the comments section as you would a town meeting, dinner party or classroom discussion. In other words, keep commenting classy! Read our guidelines...

Note: Comments are limited to 300 words.

Recent Comments

Social Club

Like Seven Days contests and events? Join the club!

See an example of this newsletter...

Keep up with us Seven Days a week!

Sign up for our fun and informative

All content © 2016 Da Capo Publishing, Inc. 255 So Champlain St Ste 5, Burlington, VT 05401
Website powered by Foundation