Maritime Museum seeks to raise historic Revolutionary War gunboat than sunk in 1776

VERGENNES — Twenty years after researchers found the Revolutionary War gunboat Spitfire in its watery grave, Lake Champlain Maritime Museum officials are recommending that it be raised, conserved and perpetually exhibited as a cultural treasure offering a direct link to the birth of the United States.
Arthur Cohn, co-founder and senior researcher of the LCMM, details the proposed recovery plan for the Spitfire in a new book titled, “A Tale of Three Gunboats,” that he co-wrote with Philip K. Lunderberg and Jennifer L. Jones. Cohn is pitching a multi-year, five-phased plan tentatively estimated at $45 million that would include construction of a shipwreck conservation facility in Burlington and an exhibit facility.
“For us, it’s an embarrassment of riches,” Cohn said of the Spitfire, found in 1997 deep beneath the surface of Lake Champlain in a spot that remains secret in order to deter would-be looters and vandals.
“To have an original, three-dimensional object complete with the artifacts story it will tell, is just an extraordinary opportunity for us to connect to the formative days of this nation,” he added during a recent phone interview while en route to Buffalo, N.Y., aboard the tugboat C.L. Churchill.
This reporter was among the Vermont media present at a 1997 LCMM press conference during which museum officials confirmed the discovery of a “mystery gunboat.” Cohn and his colleagues knew the gunboat was one in a small fleet commanded by Benedict Arnold during the Battle of Valcour Island on Oct. 11, 1776. All of Arnold’s boats, except the New York, were either destroyed by the British, captured or scuttled by the Continental Army. While British forces won the battle, Arnold’s forces damaged the British fleet enough to send it back to Canada to regroup, thereby giving the Americans time to galvanize their own forces for a winning war effort.
It took 18 months of careful research for LCMM officials to conclusively identify the 54-foot-long gunboat as the Spitfire, which sank straight down to the lake bottom, remarkably intact and upright, complete with mast.
Museum officials made multiple dives to the shipwreck, to photograph it and record the various artifacts on board. Once chronicled, officials turned their attention to its preservation. Would it be safer to leave the gunboat underwater, tucked away in its time capsule of muck, or should it be raised and preserved, as was the Philadelphia?
Mother Nature made the decision for the LCMM, according to Cohn. If left where it is, the Spitfire will be destroyed by Quagga mussels that marine scientists believe will inevitably make their way into Lake Champlain. The Quagga mussel is an invasive species that has been discovered in the St. Lawrence Seaway. The mollusk can survive in considerable depths and can affix itself to a variety of surfaces — including historic shipwrecks.
“The radical change in the equation has been the coming of the mussels,” Cohn said.
He added the Quagga muscles, if left unchecked, could destabilize the iron fastenings that hold the Spitfire together.
“It would cause the boat to be a pile of rubble at the bottom of Lake Champlain,” Cohn said. “If we leave the boat where it is, we will witness (the Spitfire’s) demise over the next decade.”
Cohn and his Lake Champlain colleagues have spent the past few years researching the process of raising and preserving shipwrecks. That research took Cohn all the way to Sweden, which has had great success reclaiming its historic shipwrecks such as the Vasa, a 389-year-old warship.
These modern times have brought more sophisticated preservation techniques than were available in 1935 when the Philadelphia was recovered, Cohn noted. Raising the Spitfire would also provide a great opportunity to compare it to the Philadelphia, he believes.
“The archaeological excavation of the on-board artifact collection contained within the Spitfire’s hull provides a significant opportunity for new research to compare and contrast the Spitfire’s construction and artifact collection to those from the Philadelphia,” reads a passage in “A Tale of Three Gunboats.”
Once carefully raised, the Spitfire would have to be painstakingly conserved in a state-of-the-art laboratory capable of holding the 54-foot-long wooden ship within a single tank of liquid, according to LCMM officials. The museum’s current headquarters off Basin Harbor Road in Ferrisburgh doesn’t have the facilities to accommodate the Spitfire. The new facility would require a staff of conservators, researchers, educators and administrators.
Officials said the Spitfire would make the new preservation facility its home for 12 years, during which its wood and iron fastenings would be stabilized and its artifact collection would be removed.
Once conserved, Cohn is recommending the Spitfire be moved, by barge, to a new shipwreck interpretation center that would be built somewhere on the New York side of the lake.
If all goes according to plan, Cohn believes the Spitfire could be fully raised and ready for conservation in 2026 — the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Valcour Island.
Cohn stressed the LCMM’s conservation plan will be refined during the next two years. It must be fully considered by federal maritime authorities. Approval of the plan would pave the way for a public-private partnership to fund the project, including the two new buildings.
The LCMM commissioned a preliminary economic impact study to determine how the future showcasing of the Spitfire could offer a financial return for the investment made in its recovery. That study, done pro-bono by the Williston-based Economic Policy Group, indicates a potential economic benefit so great that Cohn wants to further vet the figures before he releases them.
“Let’s just say that we believe if you did the (Spitfire) process as outlined, you would certainly put the Champlain Valley and its history on the worldwide map and create a heritage attraction that would potentially have a significant positive economic impact on the community,” he said.
For more information on the LCMM and the Spitfire, log on to lcmm.org.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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