Maritime Museum weighs future of historic replica ship
FERRISBURGH — The Lake Champlain Maritime Museum has earned a reputation for discovering and mapping the submerged remains of hundreds of ships that once crisscrossed Vermont’s most celebrated waterway.
Now the museum is preparing to lay to rest a boat of its own creation — the Lois McClure, a replica canal schooner that has enthralled many thousands of visitors during the past two decades.
But the Ferrisburgh museum’s plans to dismantle the ship within the next two years and make it a land-based exhibit are not sitting well with some who have worked most closely with the boat.
“I won’t say it won’t take a lot of work to (keep the Lois McClure going) … but I will say that you have to have the will to want to make it happen, ” Erick Tichonuk, former first mate and captain of the boat, told members of the Senate Institutions Committee during a March 18 hearing at the Statehouse. “That’s something that I question — if the Maritime Museum wishes to be the caretaker of that vessel as a full-scale, working enterprise. I believe it has the most power as that, and I am firm in the belief that the idea of dismantling the boat is fundamentally flawed.”
In 2001 the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, or LCMM, initiated the “Canal Schooner Replica Project,” thanks to a generous gift from the McClure family. What emerged was an 1862-class sailing canal schooner dubbed the Lois McClure. Builders endowed the boat with the same kind of cargo hold, family living quarters and other accouterments typical of a canal schooler, referred to by some as the “tractor-trailer units” of that era.
The Lois McClure and its trained crew have made many voyages on Lake Champlain and beyond, exporting canal schooner history as well as the LCMM’s mission to myriad ports, where more than 300,000 people were taken on for free tours to great effect. The schooner proved a hit with visitors of all ages in Vermont, New York and Canada.
But current LCMM officials — led by Executive Director Susan McClure (no relation to the boat’s namesake) — note understandable wear and tear on a boat that’s traveled thousands of miles and made hundreds of landings at various docks.
McClure said a typical working canal schooner’s life was around 20 years, at which time the owner would sometimes scuttle (sink) the boat. Rather than invest resources to extend the Lois McClure’s life, LCMM officials want to collect stories and memorabilia linked to the boat and look for a company that could possibly manage it. Realizing such companies are few, McClure said the other option would be to dismantle the Lois and use portions of her in a covered, land-based exhibit that would incorporate canal boat artifacts from the museum’s collection.
“Nothing can take away from the impact this boat has had for the past 20 years,” McClure said. “What we’re hoping to do in the future is to continue a legacy in a way that honors the stories of the people who actually worked on these boats in the 19th and early-20th centuries, and the people in our community who committed so much time to this project.”
But some current and former LCMM officials — several of whom participated in the building, stewardship and/or voyages of the Lois — disagree with the museum’s strategy. They are arguing for the Lois McClure to be given a reprieve — at least until 2025, so that the boat can participate in the landmark anniversaries of the Champlain and Lake Eerie canals.
Arthur Cohn is director emeritus of the LCMM. He planned the project after the McClure family challenged the LCMM to recreate one of the working canal boats that were so pivotal to maritime commerce. Cohn created the budget for what would become the Lois McClure, hired the artisans who built it, and helped oversee the construction process that led to the schooner’s launch in 2004.
More than that, Cohn was a crew member for many of the Lois McClure’s voyages, which he said were wildly successful.
“I concluded that this was the most effective historical platform that I had ever seen or been a party to,” he said. “It was joyous to me to participate in the interpretation of history aboard that boat. The boat was like a little magic carpet, or time machine.”
One of the highlights for Cohn: The boat’s 10-day stay on the Quebec City waterfront in 2008, marking the 400th anniversary of Samuel de Champlain’s founding of that city. The Vermont delegation included U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy and then-Vermont Gov. James Douglas.
Cohn said he was aware of the boat’s upkeep and maintenance needs.
“We knew we had a big wooden boat and we knew enough about our craft that a big wooden boat that works requires ever more maintenance as it wears itself around,” he said. “We always had maintenance going on, and on occasion we had significant repairs.”
Cohn said he wasn’t informed of the Lois McClure’s proposed decommissioning until around two weeks ago.
“There was no, ‘What do you think?’ ‘How can we do this?’ ‘Can money be raised?’” Cohn said. “There was no input on my part on the conclusion that was reached.”
He said he learned the LCMM had commissioned a boatwright’s survey of the schooner that factored into the museum’s decommissioning decision.
That survey, according to Susan McClure, revealed the need for “repairing areas of rot in the topside planking and framing, replacing the bulwarks, resetting loose bungs in the planking, and replacing the oak breasthook and cap rail over the transom.”
McClure declined to provide a copy of the survey, calling it “an internal document for planning purposes.”
The survey was prepared last summer by David D. Short, principal of North Atlantic Shipbuilding & Repair, LLC. Short, in his conclusion to his report (obtained by the Independent), states among other things that “the Lois McClure, as seen, is in good condition and in the opinion of this inspector is suitable for navigation is lakes, bays and sounds, when operated by an experienced captain.”
McClure acknowledged “the shipwright was very clear that if that work was done, the boat could continue to operate safely on the water,” but added the LCMM board assessed the cost of immediate repairs; reviewed the annual costs to maintain the boat, forecast the future major repair work the boat would need, and ultimately agreed “they had stretched beyond the original goals and plans for the replica boat project and that there was an opportunity for the museum to learn from this project and continue to tell the important story of canal boats in new ways.”
“In short, the decision to retire the Lois was not based on the short-term repairs in the report,” she concluded.
‘DIDN’T HAVE A CHOICE’
Eliza Nelson has been tight with the Lois McClure since it was introduced to the public 21 years ago. She joined the LCMM as an exhibit interpreter, eventually graduating to “schooner and volunteer coordinator.”
Her husband, Paul Smith, crafted the Lois McClure’s first helm, aka steering wheel.
Nelson resigned from her position earlier this month in large part due of her opposition to the decommissioning plan for the Lois McClure.
“It was an incredibly difficult decision to leave, but once the announcement was made about the way this project was going, and after attempts to improve the project didn’t go anywhere, I didn’t feel I had any choice,” Nelson said.
She includes herself in a camp of what she says are around 30 people — former Lois McClure builders, shipmates, boosters and members of the general public — who believe the schooner could and should remain a traveling exhibit through at least the next three years. The extra time would allow the boat to help mark next year’s 200th anniversary of the Champlain Canal connecting Lake Champlain to the Hudson River and the 200th birthday (in 2025) of the Erie Canal, which opened up the Champlain Valley to western commerce.
“It makes perfect sense,” she said.
Nelson strongly believes fundraising and volunteer labor could make the necessary Lois McClure updates affordable and sustain the schooner through 2025.
“As the former volunteer coordinator, I know there are volunteers willing to work on that boat,” she said. “If we had a small amount of money and a professional guiding things, volunteers could do the demolition of parts that need to be taken off … using the original techniques. Take the rot off and put new boards on; that’s the beauty of a wooden boat.”
If LCMM officials don’t keep the Lois McClure in the water, Nelson hopes the schooner could be placed — completely intact — in a covered spot on the museum campus. This, she said, would allow visitors to better understand how the ship functioned, as opposed to touring pieces of the schooner.
“There’s a visceral experience of going through the spaces — the smells, the cargo piled up, and to really feel that impact,” Nelson said. “You don’t feel that impact of you have the stern of the boat over here, the bow of the boat over there, and maybe a section of the hill in the middle.
“There’s something lost when you take it apart.”
But Susan McClure argues the museum must take other factors into consideration.
“The decision we made is not about what needs to happen today; it’s about the long-term for the museum,” she said, “We’re not approaching this as an end to canal boats; we’re looking at what comes next, and ‘Phase 3’ of the project.”
She explained the first phase was building the Lois McClure, the second phase was having the boat travel the waterways, and the third phase will be to “create an on-site exhibit that we plan to open in 2024 that will continue to tell the story with a real focus on accessibility.”
McClure noted that the Lois isn’t accessible to all people, as the ship was faithfully constructed to 19th century standards.
“There was no ADA in 1862, so our focus on this new exhibit will be on being fully accessible, and trying to recreate pieces of the experience,” she said. “Nothing will ever be the same as being on the deck of the ship and looking at the lake and the mountains, but we’re hoping to use some creative techniques to try to replicate a few of those experiences that are accessible to everyone.”
For example, she vowed to maintain and showcase the Lois McClure’s living quarters. That’s where the family spent time, while around 80% of the schooner was earmarked for cargo.
“That’s something we want to capture with this exhibit; telling the stories of people through their experiences on these boats,” McClure said.
She emphasized there’s still time to see the boat. Plans call for the Lois to be on the water and open to the public this summer and the next. In the meantime, the LCMM will work on finding a partner organization to manage the boat. Failing that, museum officials will have to figure out how to use pieces of the boat in the new exhibit, she said.
McClure said the public will be given a voice in charting the course for the new Lois McClure exhibit. People are being encouraged to log on to tinyurl.com/45bk5ktn and share:
- A favorite memory, photo, or video to make a part of the project through an electronic “memory box” on the website.
- Any family stories, photos, or documents from life on the canals.
- Memories from anyone who volunteered on one of the many Lois McClure tour seasons, or who participated in the original build.
- Any suggestions or ideas for the project.
“It was a public project from the beginning, and we wanted to stay true to that ethos of a public project,” McClure said.
Coming to grips with the boat’s retirement has been tough on all LCMM staff, she said.
“We care about this boat a lot and we care about the story,” she said. “We really do believe that what we’re doing is best for the boat and the story.”
Samantha Williams, a former education director for the LCMM, disagrees. She recalled leading school children through the Lois McClure, and the visual impact of a fully intact vessel.
“It’s so difficult to get young people interested in history today, and that’s what things like the schooner and the Philadelphia do,” she told members of the Senate Institutions Committee at the March 18 hearing. “It opens minds in a way a static exhibit couldn’t possibly do.
“I think the Lois McClure is a huge asset for the state of Vermont and it would be a terrible shame to see her dismantled before she’s finished her work,” Williams added, “I think she still has a lot of work to do.”
John Flowers is at [email protected]
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