Cohn reflects on maritime museum’s steady growth

FERRISBURGH — There was a time when Art Cohn believed the heaviest lifting associated with establishing the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum (LCMM) would be setting up its first rudimentary headquarters near the Basin Harbor Club in Ferrisburgh.
That feat occurred a little more than 25 year ago, when museum co-founders Cohn and Robert Beach Jr. spearheaded the dismantling of Panton’s old stone schoolhouse on Lake Road, then relocated and reassembled it — piece by piece — at the then-barren, four-acre LCMM campus.
It proved to be an 18-month task that produced a home base from which the fledgling museum would conduct research and offer various displays to enhance visitors’ understanding of Lake Champlain and its rich heritage.
“It was the first building, and what I though at the time, was the last building that the museum would ever be,” Cohn said this week.
“Honestly, if you had asked me then to look down the road 26 years and asked me, ‘What would the museum look like?’ I would have said, ‘The old schoolhouse,’” he added. “I had no delusions of grandeur.”
But Cohn found in the public an unbridled interest in the lake and the many historical secrets locked in its submerged vault. In succeeding years, donors, legislators and fans gave him and his staff the wherewithal to unlock that vault and uncover a treasure drove of artifacts, including more than 300 shipwrecks that tell centuries of stories about early settlement, warfare, independence and commercial activity.
From its humble beginnings at the old Panton schoolhouse, the LCMM has grown into a campus of 14 buildings with 30 full- and part-time employees and an annual budget of around $1.4 million. Cohn has enjoyed seeing the museum grow, but he recently announced that this season would be his last as director. Citing a desire to spend more time with family and as a hospital chaplain, Cohn will soon transition into a different role with the LCMM, as a senior advisor and manager of special projects.
“What an extraordinary voyage,” Cohn said on Monday of his years spent with the museum.
“What a gift.”
Cohn was a professional diver with a law degree when he and Beach decided to establish the LCMM. Cohn — who had been on numerous dives in the Caribbean — had just concluded a Lake Champlain dive for a Canadian group that was looking for a what it thought was a War of 1812 shipwreck. The sonar image the Canadians believed to be a wreck ended up being a mere geological formation on the lakebed. But Cohn also explored another potential wreck site pinpointed by the group that yielded an intact 1840s commercial boat.
“I was taken with the incredible state of preservation of this time capsule,” Cohn recalled.
He and others formed the Champlain Maritime Society to conduct more research into the lake’s history and some of the shipwrecks it harbors. The society’s membership featured what Cohn called “a lot of the elder statesmen of the lake.”
“We began to identify, locate and study, piece by piece, the lake’s shipwrecks,” Cohn said, including such finds as the General Butlerand the Phoenix, along with subsequent War of 1812 shipwrecks.
In 1983 Cohn heard about a shipwreck in Basin Harbor. That’s when he first met Beach, who told him of his grandfather’s vision of a Lake Champlain museum.
Cohn and Beach pursued that vision, moved the schoolhouse, and the rest is history — a lot of history.
Using sonar and other sophisticated detection equipment, officials from the LCMM, Middlebury College and others in 2005 completed a 10-year underwater mapping project for the lake. That survey confirmed more than 300 wrecks, with the crown jewel being the very intact remnants of the Spitfire, a 54-foot-long Revolutionary War gunboat that was part of Brigadier General Benedict Arnold’s fleet at the October 1776 Battle of Valcour Island. The Spitfire’s remains were discovered in 1997.
One of Cohn’s primary tasks as manager of special projects will be recommending a management plan for the Spitfire, which remains one of the nation’s most important submerged artifacts.
“After the joy of discovery there is the dilemma of management,” Cohn said, noting a pressing danger for all submerged relics in Lake Champlain: Zebra mussels and quagga mussels, tiny mollusks that are affixing themselves in large numbers on hard surfaces. The LCMM has been in a race to document and in some cases preserve submerged historical assets before they are made unrecognizable by nuisance mollusks.
“Lake Champlain has the gift of having one of the richest historical timelines in North America,” Cohn said.
“Finding the stuff is the easiest part of the job,” Cohn said. “You get no points for finding it; you only get points for managing the stuff after you find it, because that’s complicated.”
Thankfully, the LCMM is scoring a lot of points on the management side. Museum officials such as Cohn have successfully lobbied at the state and federal levels for public policy governing the management, protection and preservation of submerged cultural resources. Such policy largely didn’t exit before Cohn and his colleagues pressed for it, meaning that such resources could be plundered or mishandled. The LCMM operates under a framework where underwater assets are carefully recorded and in most cases shared with the public though interpretive displays or actual diving trips.
LCMM officials were instrumental in promoting the nation’s Abandoned Shipwrecks Act in 1987.
“Lake Champlain has become a model, worldwide, for how you might value and manage for the public benefit, a collection of resources that exists everywhere where people have been around the water,” Cohn said. “If you are going to argue that these are public resources, the public has to be able to access the information.”
The public is taking advantage of those chances through LCMM’s ever-expanding programs and offerings, including exhibits chronicling historic battles that took place on the lake; a variety of workshops, camps and seminars; a comprehensive display of donated boats; and a lab where staff are busy at work conserving various small artifacts recovered from the lake.
Cohn is particularly proud of the museum’s longboat program, through which Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center students annually build a vessel with the guidance of LCMM staff. The 14th longboat created during the program’s history will be launched by students on May 26, at 11 a.m. at the museum.
The LCMM has also expanded its presence to the Burlington shipyard, where the replica canal schooner Lois McClurewas built earlier this decade. Cohn has regularly been a part of the Lois McClure’s crew in its annual voyages through Vermont and New York’s canal systems. The vessel stops at numerous ports where the crew gives people a first-hand glimpse of how maritime commerce was conducted in the 19th century.
“It’s pretty darned close (to a time machine),” Cohn said of the Lois McClure. “That ongoing voyage has been very special.”
He said he is grateful to have had the opportunity to lead the museum through its formative years, but he’ll be ready this fall to pass the torch to new Co-executive Directors Erick Tichonuk and Adam Kane.
Cohn began to think about easing out of his LCMM leadership role six years ago during a serious illness.
“It raised a lot of questions for me,” Cohn said. “I healed from all of that, but it allowed me to sit in a hospital room and wonder, ‘What happens if?’” he said. He decided this year was a good year to cede leadership because he is confident Tichonuk and Kane are the right people for the job.
But Cohn stressed he won’t be leaving the museum; he’ll just have more time to spend on special LCMM projects and with his wife, whom he calls “Saint Anne,” and his part-time role as a chaplain at Fletcher Allen Health Care. He is also a longtime member and chaplain of the Ferrisburgh Fire Department.
Cohn has made a lot of friends during his LCMM odyssey, including U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy. The Vermont Democrat has championed many LCMM causes at the federal level and has participated on some dives with Cohn.
“I have known Art for the entire 26 years since he founded the LCMM, and I continue to be amazed at all that he accomplishes,” Leahy told the Independent. “Working from whole cloth he has built a world-class cultural and historical museum that enriches Vermont and intrigues visitors from around the world.
“Art has personally discovered, conserved and interpreted Lake Champlain’s maritime history, which is among the richest historical treasure troves in North America. Until Art came along, much of our maritime history was hidden in the lake’s depths.”
But Leahy said he takes comfort in the knowledge that Cohn is not leaving the lake Champlain scene.
“The announcement that Art is turning over directorship of the maritime museum does not, of course, mean his retirement,” Leahy said. “It merely tells us that he will be redirecting his boundless energy and considerable skills toward other endeavors. I fully expect to be working with Art on conservation and education projects for years to come. And I hope to join him on a few diving adventures as well.”
Beach praised his longtime friend and reminisced about their early days imagining the LCMM.
“The fellow is a visionary,” Beach said of Cohn.
“In the early days of the maritime museum, we always looked at good ideas with the idea we could make them happen, no matter what,” he added. “We thought that if it was a good idea, we would find the money and make it happen, and we were fortunate enough to be able to do that.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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