Maritime Museum launches lake tour to deliver history of canals

FERRISBURGH — Lake Champlain Maritime Museum officials are used to receiving a lot of visitors who spend hours perusing the LCMM’s many exhibits in Ferrisburgh that capture the storied history and environmental essence of the lake and its tributaries.
But this summer, LCMM officials are also conveniently delivering that history to the people of more than 35 communities as part of a legacy tour featuring the canal schooner Lois McClure. The Lois McClure and its omnipresent companion — the tugboat C.L. Churchill — will spend the next 100 days visiting ports along the Champlain and Erie canals in this, the 200th anniversary of the start of construction of those two feats of human engineering. Creation of both canals ushered in a new era of travel and commerce.
“The completion of the Champlain Canal in 1823 changed the Champlain Valley and Vermont forever,” Art Cohn said during a recent phone interview from the cabin of the C.L. Churchill while docked in Fort Edward, N.Y.
“You look at the lighthouses, the breakwaters, the remnants and legacy of our great commercial path, and it all relates to this waterway,” he added.
Construction of the Erie Canal began on July 4, 1817, in Rome, N.Y. Opened in 1825, the new waterway included 18 aqueducts to carry the canal over ravines and rivers, and 83 locks, with a rise of 568 feet from the Hudson River to Lake Erie, according to information supplied by the LCMM. The Lois McClure and C.L. Churchill “will make vivid this gritty and essential piece of U.S. history” to the thousands of visitors — including many school children — during a voyage that began on July 1 at the Westport (N.Y.) Marina and is slated to conclude on Oct. 9 in Mechanicsville, N.Y.
Cohn, a leader of the crew and captain of the C.L. Churchill, stressed the legacy tour will highlight other lake-related issues and treasures.
“We are also out in an environmental program, distributing seedlings of white oak and white pine to communities all along the way,” Cohn said. “We are talking about forest stewardship and the forests that were here when we all arrived, and the impact of the canal, which was a fabulous conduit for moving lumber from place to place. We obviously at that point weren’t sensitive about conservation, but out of that effort came the conservation movement.”
The crew will involve students at each port in hands-on activities exploring forest ecosystems, the history of forestry, different uses for wood products, and the crucial role the forest plays in fostering clean water, soil health and rich habitat.
People who receive the seedlings will be asked to plant them along the schooner’s route in partnership with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation’s “Trees for Tribs” program that promotes the protection of water quality through the establishment and restoration of stream-side forest buffers.
Cohn noted the vital role that area trees — such as white oak and white pine — have played for centuries in boatbuilding and in safeguarding the forest ecosystem. The Lois McClure is made of both whit oak and white pine.
Legacy tour members will also offer information about the Spitfire, a Revolutionary War gunboat discovered in Lake Champlain in 1997. As reported in the July 13 issue of the Independent, Cohn has co-authored a new book that details a proposed recovery and conservation plan for the Spitfire, one in a small fleet of boats commanded by Benedict Arnold during the battle of Valcour Island on Oct. 11, 1776.
“People are invited to come aboard at no cost,” Cohn noted. “We’re here because of our sponsors. We’re underwritten so we can offer this service.”
The state of Vermont and the New York State Canal Corp. are the two principle sponsors of the 2017 legacy tour, with additional support from the Lake Champlain Basin Program.
“We will literally see tens of thousands of people aboard during the next 100 days,” Cohn said.
For Cohn, the Legacy 2017 is not so much a job as it is a labor of love. He has become intimately familiar with the lake during his more than three decades of research and stewardship of some of the Champlain Valley’s most important resources.
“I’ve grown to love the experience of travelling at 5 miles per hour over literally 1,000 miles to see these communities and nature,” Cohn said. “It’s a pure treat for me. I love talking about the history and engaging the people we see. We had 170 on board yesterday, in Fort Edward, from little kids to ancient elders and everybody in between. It’s a hugely rewarding process for us.”
A complete schedule of the Lois McClure’s stops and more details about the Legacy 2017 voyage can be found at lcmm.org/our_fleet/lois_mcclure_schedule.htm.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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