Diving deep: Tenth shipwreck added to recreational dives in Lake Champlain

In Lake Champlain, 100 feet down in the dark and chilly waters of Shelburne Bay, the U.S. La Vallee tugboat sits upright and in nearly perfect condition. Aside from the windows, blown out from air pressure upon the boat’s sinking 80-plus years ago, it is completely intact, with its original paint and a readable steel plaque that lists details about its unique steam-powered engine.
Chris Sabick, archaeological director at Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Ferrisburgh, dove on the shipwreck after it was found in 1996.
“It’s this one moment in history, frozen in time and place at the bottom of the lake, and that’s thrilling,” he said. “We like to say it’s like shaking hands with history. The fact that it’s dark and cold, that can add a certain mood to the diving that can make it even more exhilarating — some drama. Whether you’re easily spooked or not is a whole other question. To see this wreck looming up out of the darkness, it’s really cool.”
Not to mention the history, he added. The U.S. La Vallee is a small wooden steam-powered tugboat — a rare specimen, especially in Lake Champlain.
This July, the U.S. La Vallee was added to the Underwater Historic Preserves System, a network of nine sunken ships throughout the lake that have been designated for recreational scuba diving. This wreck is the first to be added to the system in 15 years.
Jonathon Eddy, owner of the Waterfront Dive Shop in Burlington, will begin chartering tours to the wreck starting soon.
“There’s a lot of interest in these shipwrecks,” Eddy said. “For local divers who dive with us all the time, having a new wreck in the preserve is exciting because they may have done a dozen dives on any given vessel in the preserve system.”
THE TUGBOAT LA Vallee is the latest shipwreck to be added to the list of Lake Champlain Dive sites. Courtesy photo.
Because of the wreck’s depth, it’s classified as an advanced dive, but it is a dive made much easier by its addition to the state-run Underwater Historic Preserve System. The program establishes underwater parks, providing divers safe access to selected shipwrecks. Wrecks included in the system are marked with yellow, three-foot-wide “special purpose” buoys, to which divers can moor their boats.  Then, the divers follow the buoy line all the way down to the wreck.
“In the past, as a diver, you found a shipwreck to dive on by dragging your anchor along the bottom until you snagged on something, and then you dove down and took a look at it. That’s obviously not good for the wrecks,” LCMM’s Sabick said. “This way, it’s much safer for the diver, and for the wreck itself. That’s the guiding principle here, that it’s better for everybody.”
Research by museum historians has revealed snippets of the U.S. La Vallee’s history. The tugboat first launched from Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1880 under the name Henry Lloyd, when hundreds of coal-fired steamers served as towing and service boats in the shipping industry. Then, it moved to New Jersey for three years, and was finally sold to a firm in Georgetown, South Carolina, where it stayed for 37 years. In 1920, the boat’s license was surrendered in New York City and deemed “dismantled, unfit for use.”
But in 1923, John E. Matton bought the Henry Lloyd, renaming it U.S La Vallee. When it was finally passed to Vermont, sold to James E. Cashman in Burlington in 1929, the boat was so old that crew members nicknamed it “The Useless Vallee.” In 1931, Cashman stopped mending the old tugboat’s leaks. He pulled it out to the middle of Shelburne Bay and scuttled it — sinking it 100 feet down, and has remained on the lake floor ever since.
“Like many things that are utilitarian and everyday, in their working life, they were deemed to be that exactly: utilitarian and everyday, and therefore not documented to any great extent,” Sabick said. “It had become a useless piece of junk to them, but for us, it’s a really neat little time capsule, particularly with that little steam engine, which is just not something we see on a boat that size — and certainly not on Lake Champlain.”
Tours from the Waterfront Dive Shop ($50 per person) will be announced on the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum’s website, lcmm.org. 

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