Champlain’s storytellers: Shoreham residents share tales from the lake

SHOREHAM — The Swinton sisters still remember the night in the early 1950s when a tugboat on Lake Champlain ran a barge aground on a sandbar, not far from the family’s home in West Bridport.
It was late, and the tugboat’s crew came over to the Swinton home to use the telephone — several times, as Peggy (Swinton) Clark, now 71, remembers it.
One thing led to another, and after several calls, the crew made plans to take their tug and head for Port Henry, N.Y., where the tugboat could make arrangements to have the stranded barge dislodged from the sandbar.
That’s when the crew invited the Swinton sisters — all six of them, the oldest ones teenagers at that time — to ride along to Port Henry.
“We had supper on the tug,” remembered Clark’s sister Mary Jane James, 74.
“Oh my, were we fed,” Clark chimed in. “Smitty the cook!”
“It was an adventure,” James added. “Every time they went by after that, they’d blow the whistle and they’d wave.”
James pointed to an old photograph on her dining room table in her Shoreham home. Sure enough, small figures against the bright red paint of a tugboat came into focus, waving to the girls on the shore.
As it turns out, growing up on Lake Champlain made for a childhood full of adventures.
James and her sister have as many stories about the lake as they have old photographs. She pulled some of those stories out of hibernation earlier this month to share with the “Voices for the Lake” initiative, a two-year project that’s using social media and new technology to collect stories about Lake Champlain to inspire better stewardship of the lake.
Stories like James and Clark’s will be shared with the town on Sept. 5 as part of the Shoreham Festival celebration, when Voices for the Lake hopes to record more oral histories about Lake Champlain from local residents.
The project is part of the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center at the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain in Burlington. At the end of the two-year project, these lake stories will be part of an exhibit at the ECHO Center, including a new interactive map of Lake Champlain pinpointing stories from the region.
For James, telling her stories about her childhood on Lake Champlain is a way to keep alive memories of a bygone era, when tugboats cruised past.
“We’re part of the history of the lake,” James said.
The Swinton sisters remember life on Lake Champlain
For the Swinton family, that history reaches back more than 200 years. The land the Swinton girls grew up on in West Bridport was first purchased by their relatives in 1801, and the Swintons have lived there continuously since 1801.
For the sisters, it was a wonderful place to grow up.
“The lake was our playground,” remembered Clark.
Come summertime, the six sisters took to the water for swimming, rowing and water skiing.
“We wore a groove right down the middle of the lake,” James laughed. “That’s why it’s so deep there.”
When the lake froze, there was ice skating, and the sisters piled into the car and drove across the lake to New York. One of their uncles walked out ahead on the ice, testing it in front of the old family car.
Venturing out across the ice by car was something of a tradition then, they remembered — though it wasn’t always the safest proposition.
“When I was six, my friend who lived down by the ferry landing, she and her mother crossed the lake and they went in. They drowned,” James said. “On the porch by our house, our grandparents and great-grandparents kept rope and a ladder on the porch, because so many times people would try to cross and they wouldn’t know where not to go.”
The sisters’ parents farmed, and the girls had free range to explore their stretch of the lake. They rode their bicycles up to an old mechanical lighthouse north of their family’s homestead, and visited the grave of a Scottish man who drowned in the lake while working at the lighthouse.
When the girls were young, James remembered, there was more commerce on the lake.
There were always pleasure boats, of course, but there were also paper barges carting newsprint south from Canada, and pile drivers, and tugboats cruising up and down the lake.
The Ticonderoga, a passenger boat now on display at the Shelburne Museum, passed by on excursions from time to time, too.
There are also stories that James and her sisters have inherited second-hand. Some of those are about her great-grandfather, Thomas Tafford, who operated the sail ferry that ran from West Bridport to Crown Point, N.Y., in the late 1800s. There was a railroad station in Crown Point, James said, and Vermonters used to head across the lake to catch the train. In Crown Point, at the landing, there was an ornate old hotel where travelers often stayed.
James tipped over one of her chairs at her dining room table, which once belonged to her grandmother. Pasted on the bottom of the seat, she explained, was a shipping label that showed the dining room table and chairs had been shipped to Crown Point and then brought across the lake on the sail ferry.
These were all among the stories James shared at the Voices for the Lake event at the Shoreham library earlier this month.
She wasn’t alone.
A man from Whitehall, N.Y., told stories of lower lake history and remembered his time as the captain on the Carillon cruise boat.
A kayaker told of a close call with a seaplane, and of the magical sound that the fife and drums corps at Fort Ticonderoga sends out over the water.
Earlier Voices for the Lake storytelling sessions at the library had been poorly attended, but this one brought out many good yarns, thanks in part to the fact that library staff and board members approached people and asked them to come with their stories.
“If you ask somebody for help, they’ll give you help,” said Dianne Lawson, the Shoreham librarian.
The way she put it, “You’re helping generations to come if you share.”
Edited video footage from the Shoreham library event will be on display at the Shoreham Festival on Sept. 5, when residents will have another chance to record their stories from Lake Champlain for the Voices for the Lake project.

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