Model ships bring history up close

FERRISBURGH — It just doesn’t do justice to the eminence of the naval battles that took place on Lake Champlain between the Americans and the British in the War of 1812 to simply read about them in a textbook. Captivating details are lost, and the magnitude of brave endeavors is either understated or omitted.
That’s where Bill Kissam comes in. The Westport, N.Y., resident has been creating solid wood, scale models of military naval vessels and dioramas for more than 25 years. This summer the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Ferrisburgh has gathered together some of his best work in an exhibit called “History in Miniature: The Maritime Models of Bill Kissam.” This exhibit, unlike most at the museum, is comprised of the work of only one man.
Visitors can see a scale model of the HMS Confiance — a British frigate that served in the Royal Navy during the Battle of Plattsburgh (a key encounter in the War of 1812) — near a model of the USS Saratoga, which defeated the Confiance.
Nearby is an elevated, coffee table-sized diorama depicting the construction of the of the Great Bridge, or “Baldwin’s Bridge,” which was built across Lake Champlain from Mount Independence in Orwell, Vt. to Fort Ticonderoga in New York during the Revolutionary War.
“The idea was to build a bridge that would not only go between Mount Independence and Fort Ticonderoga, but that would also be a part of a barrier to prevent the British from sailing down the lake and dividing the New England colonies on the New York side,” said Eloise Beil, director of Collections and Exhibits for the Maritime Museum. “It didn’t work, but it was a heroic effort.”
Although it depicts a different war from Kissam’s model ships, the lessons one can draw from the Revolutionary diorama and the War of 1812 ships are similar. Without being able to see a replica of the Great Bridge, it would be difficult to discern how, exactly, a construction project is heroic. Kissam’s models also help to illuminate that fact.
“(The bridge) was built in the winter when the lake was frozen, so you had people working manually and with horse and ox teams, felling huge trees, hauling the timbers down to the lake, sawing holes in the ice, and building, what is in effect, a log cabin,” Beil said.
The caissons on which the bridge sat “went down as deep as the water was,” she said. “At the edges, they were shallow — it was like building a two-story log cabin. But out in the middle, it was like building a four-story or five-story log cabin. They did it all in one winter.”
It sounds dangerous.
“Oh, God, yes,” Beil said. “It was a heroic effort. And it’s really brought to life here. It’s really hard for us to picture it when you just hear the words, but when you actually see the guys with their axes and these huge logs,” she said, gesturing toward the diorama. “They weren’t well-fed and they weren’t well-clothed and it was bitter, mid-winter. It really captures the imagination and it really transports you back in time.”
In the same way, Kissam’s work helps to take the museum’s patrons back in time. Some of the models have tiny people on the decks of the ships, particularly on the steamboats. One of the steamboat models, the Chateaugay, is so large that one can peek into the windows of the boat and see the interior of the cabins. With its moving parts, it’s a museum favorite.
“For me, my mind always goes wandering and exploring as if I was a tiny person walking all over the steamboat,” Beil said. “I love that he has people on board the Maquam. It helps me see myself within that crowd.”
Kissam’s corvettes and frigates of the “Battle of Plattsburgh” are, according the Beil, perhaps the highlight of the exhibition and what captivated Kissam’s interest. Kissam derived the schematics for these ships from Howard Chapelle, a former curator of maritime history of the Smithsonian Museum and one of the nation’s most preeminent naval architects.
With such pronounced attention to detail, it may seem no easy task for Kissam to create such elaborate models of nation’s most famous naval vessels. But Kissam said, “It’s not difficult.” Many of them take less than a year to create, he added.
Kissam’s captivating exhibit, which details the exploits of our nation’s armed forces and the history of naval travel on Lake Champlain, will remain at the museum until Oct. 11.

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