Schooner brings piece of history to Vergennes

VERGENNES — When Lake Champlain Maritime Museum (LCMM) officials were planning this year’s four-month trip through New York, Canada and Vermont for the museum’s replica canal schooner, the Lois McClure, there was little debate about the final stop.
The journey through canals, rivers and Lake Ontario, which ends this coming Friday, has recognized the region’s pivotal role in the War of 1812 between Great Britain and the United States, which had recently won its freedom from the crown — and the 200 years of peace that followed.
LCMM founder Art Cohn, who has been piloting the tugboat C.L. Churchill that has helped the schooner navigate the waterways, said picking Vergennes as the ultimate destination was an easy choice.
“What happened in Vergennes, you could argue fairly, was more important than what happened anywhere else,” Cohn said.
Cohn said the 1814 Battle of Plattsburgh Bay, which repelled the last great British invasion attempt of the conflict, could not have been won without a heroic shipbuilding effort in Vergennes supervised by Commodore Thomas MacDonough, also the winning commander in the battle.
And, he said, at the same time in Plattsburgh on the banks of the Saranac River, Gen. Samuel Strong of Vergennes led the 2,500 Vermont militiamen that joined 1,500 American regulars and 1,500 New York militiamen in holding off 8,000 hardened British troops.
Cohn hopes a ceremony planned for 3 p.m. on Friday in the city’s Otter Creek basin, and then a weekend-long visit there by the Lois McClure — it will be open to the public at no charge — will highlight Vergennes’ central role in saving the young nation.
“I felt for a long time that the Vergennes story has been under-appreciated,” he said. “I don’t want to sound like a local guy touting his own local history, but as a student of history, (given) the ships that had been built in Vergennes and the Battle of Plattsburgh Bay and its importance, I have never felt from a national perspective the country has realized what really happened here.”
He said many local residents may not fully understand why there is a monument to MacDonough on the city’s central green, a riverfront road that bears his name, and high school sports teams that honor his rank. While he hopes that the stop will draw wider attention to Vergennes, Cohn also hopes local residents will note the area’s heritage.
“What happened in Vergennes … is a national and an international story, and people don’t know it,” Cohn said. “When my kids were on high school sports teams, I would ask their friends why their basketball team was called the Commodores. I didn’t get a lot of responses that the kids could make the historic connection with the sports connection and the community … Why not conclude that trip in our home port of Vergennes and try to make that connection?”
There is debate on the exact location of MacDonough’s shipyard. Cohn said no pictures exist, possibly because of military security around the effort. A recent LCMM effort uncovered some artifacts that suggest a location near what is now Northlands Job Corps, but other local historians believe it was nearer the falls.
“I think it’s a wonderful open-research question,” Cohn said. “I think it’s subject to a fair debate.”
In Cohn’s mind, there is no debate of what was going on 200 years ago on that stretch of Otter Creek — an effort so vast the entire region had to pitch in.
“Thousands of men were building warships there that ended a war,” he said, adding, “This shipyard, to work, had to have the support of all the surrounding towns.”
They built the Saratoga, MacDonough’s 150-foot flagship, a three-mast vessel with 27 heavy guns; the Eagle, a 120-foot, 20-gun ship that was sunk (its wreck has been explored by the LCMM); and six 75-foot gunboats. And they converted a number of commercial boats into military vessels, and converted a half-built schooner into a warship.
“These are remarkable achievements,” Cohn said.
Although the 88-foot Lois McClure is a replica of a commercial ship used to transport goods through the canals built in the post-war era, Cohn said it is still an appropriate vessel to spread the word about the War of 1812.
Those canals, including the Erie Canal, were used mainly for commerce, but Cohn said the Americans and British also built them on both sides of the border with military applications in mind — they were the “homeland security projects” of their day.
“Military was a priority. Military was going to design and build and operate it,” he said. “There is this intersection between the canals and the War of 1812 that hasn’t been viewed before.”
Sometime on Friday, the Lois McClure and the C.L. Churchill will dock on the side of Otter Creek opposite MacDonough Drive, near Falls Park.
At 3 p.m., Vergennes Mayor Michael Daniels will officially welcome the boats and kick off a ceremony that will feature officials from New York and Canada and Gov. Peter Shumlin; music and exhibits, including the unveiling of a painting of the shipyard; and the first chance of the weekend to board the Lois McClure.
Daniels, also a student of history, agrees with Cohn that the city is an appropriate place to end the vessel’s tour.
“It’s a good closure to the Lois McClure’s trip as an ambassador,” Daniels said. “It’s a fine place to bring closure to that trip since Vergennes was the place where the ships were made … We’re looking forward to participating.”
Visitors to the Lois McClure in Vergennes, as have the more than 20,000 who have come aboard during its four-month journey, will be given a pamphlet about the War of 1812 and its aftermath called “1812: Commemorating the War, Celebrating the Peace.”
“These boats carried in their day stone and brick and coal and all that sort of stuff,” Cohn said. “We built this boat essentially to carry stories.”
And maybe Vergennes’ story needs to be told as much as any.
“The War of 1812, in my opinion, has been under-studied and under-appreciated,” Cohn said. “And it just so happens that Vergennes, one of my hometowns, has a story to tell, and you don’t have to embellish it. It’s a world-class story.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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