If you are a follower of our blog, then you know we were delayed in our quest westward two weeks ago by a rain storm event. After our layover in Waterford, we struck out on June 24th and ended the night about twenty-miles west of Waterford and so close to the Rexford Aqueduct that we were able to put a bow-line to it. We were poised to continue our travels west today (Thursday June 27) so that we might bring the story of the war in 1813, the canals that were built in their wake and raise awareness about shipwrecks, many reflecting on the War of 1812. However, the weather forecast began to talk about another storm-event with potentially significant amounts of rain on the horizon. Like Bill Murray in the movie “Groundhog Day”, we again began to think about safe harbor, delay and rescheduling. Fortunately for us, our partners at the New York State Canal Corporation have been taking great care of us and the other boaters on the system and contacted us to talk over what was coming and the options they were developing to deal with it.
Waking up to a beautiful summer morning its was hard to image that such heavy weather was supposed to engulf us later, but a quick check of the morning NOAA forecast confirmed that this was no dream and that a significant rain event was on its way. Just how much rain seems to be the question. As I write this update I am waiting to hear from our contacts at the Canal Corps so we can get the latest thinking about what may be actually coming and the best place for us to be when it hits. At the moment we are guests of our friends at the Schenectady Yacht Club who have gone out of their way to make us welcome.
We stopped here in 2007 and 2010, and have fond memories of this marina on the north side of the Mohawk River but built right on the site of the old Erie Canal. The site contains the northern end of the Rexford stone aqueduct, remnants of Locks 21 and 22, of which the stone walls are still used by a travel-lift to launch and retrieve boats from the old Erie Canal channel. The Schenectady Yacht Clubhouse is the old M. Travis Canal Store which in bygone days sat right on Lock 22 the tops of whose stone wall can still be seen on the edge of the parking lot. This is the perfect spot for an 1860’s replica canal boat to sit as all this infrastructure was designed to handle boats like the Lois McClure.
So it was with some degree of interest that our Captain Roger Taylor was walking near the Clubhouse when he saw an anchor leaning up against the back of the building. A conversation with Clark Farnsworth, the venerable former operator of the marina, suggested that the anchor was destined to be a lawn ornament but that if Captain Roger thought it could be used to help the Lois McClure we should take it with us. A series of phone calls between Commodore Dick Mason and other Club members enthusiastically endorsed the idea of our using the anchor and soon the period correct, 75 pound “Old Style” Wilcox and Crittenden anchor came aboard to replace our modern Danforth anchor. The Danforth was moved to the tugboat to be available when needed and with the swap completed, he fore-deck of the Lois took on a much more authentic look as we chronicled one more example of the community’s “act of kindness” to help us achieve our mission and take care of the crew.
All that goodwill and karma was a welcome reprieve from the storm clouds expected from the west. The folks at the National Weather Center were very gracious in talking to us and providing their best forecasts of what was to come. The Canal Corporation is working overtime to apply the models to the river flow and design a strategy to protect the community and their just repaired system. Aboard the Lois McClure we have made preparations to leave this exposed historic channel if need be and seek a safer harbor. As soon as this event is over I will provide you with a look what happened and how we rode it out…but until then, it will be all hands on deck.
We’ve had a lot of rain lately and so our trip through the southern end of the Champlain Canal was faster than we had calculated, with the current from the Hudson River adding about 2-knots to our speed. As we rounded the wall at the junction of the Champlain and Erie canals, which was also the junction of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers, we were well ahead of schedule. With more rain in the forecast, some of it potentially heavy, our knowledgeable friend John Callaghan, suggested that we go up above Lock E2 to the wall near the Old Champlain Canal. That proved to be very sage advice as just a day later we were struck with a powerful storm event that flooded the system and forced the closure of the canal.
To their great credit, the canal team worked tirelessly to control the flood-waters and to move all boaters into safe harbor. They provided all manner of support to these stranded boaters from far-flung places like Michigan, North Carolina, Ontario, Colorado and Vermont. By the time the storm was over, the raging waters of the Mohawk River and debris it carried had caused sufficient damage the dams on the river so that the system could not operate until it was fixed. With the Canal Corporation moving into active repair mode, the question now on everyone’s mind was how long would that be?
As I pondered our situation at our position of safety lying directly next to the Old Champlain Canal and just a dozen yards from the expanded 1860’s three-stone-lock “Waterford Side-Cut”, I wondered if our ever vigilant canal boat captain, Theodore Bartley had experienced a similar situation. I began looking at the entries in the remarkable 29-year record record of life on the canal from1861-1889 that Theodore had left us and which had been meticulously transcribed by his great granddaughter-in-law and now veteran Lois McClure interpreter Barbara Bartley. I didn’t have to look for very long when I came across an entry for 1884 that was almost prophetic. It was the beginning of the 1884 boating season and Captain Bartley had just delivered a load of St. Jean, Quebec lumber to New York City. He had shopped it around and been able to sell it to Cross & Goodwin in Brooklyn for the disappointing price of 12 ¼ cents per piece.
He had then taken a job hauling a load of coal north, a frequent return cargo, and took a tow to Newburgh where he was to load his coal for the return trip north. When he arrived at Newburgh, Captain Bartley was told that with the other boats ahead of him it would take a week to load him and so he took the Hudson River steamboat Mary Powell back to NYC to finalize payment for the lumber then later that day took that famous steamer back to Newburgh. After waiting a week to load the coal, he was off to the Champlain Canal and he records that he arrived at Waterford near six in the evening.
Captain Bartley’s next entry written from Waterford on June 14th, 1884, exactly 129-years earlier is that “Must stay probly [sic] more than a week on account of a break in the canal, a pretty bad one in the deep wide water this side of [Coveville]”
I found the irony of Captain Bartley’s delay and our situation a wonderful and reassuring coincidence of history as within due course the canal breach that had delayed him was repaired and with his hired horse-team he was on his way. In our situation the Canal folks are reporting daily progress on repairing the system and an improving prospect of moving within the week. We have been in touch with the communities we are scheduled to visit and working to make alternative plans for modified visits in all those communities.
Last night the Canal workers organized a barbeque gathering of all the boaters who are here and it was a wonderful evening of stories and visiting. I’m pleased to report that our crew of Len, Isaac, Carolyn and myself were able to open the boat for our neighbors and they all came aboard to experience the magic of our wonderful time machine. The time machine analogy was all that more apparent when I was able to recall for the assembled group the experiences of Captain Theodore Bartley from this same spot exactly 129-years ago.
From the crew of the Lois McClure and the other boaters utilizing this extraordinary waterway we convey high praise to the New York State Canal Corporation and their staff. The great care they exhibited for the well being of all the canal users and the skill and dedication they have demonstrated throughout this weather event and its aftermath is a true tribute to the Empire State. It is also a great reflection on the generations of canal workers who came before them and who facilitated safe travels on this historic waterway for canal boatman and their families for almost 200 years. We thank the canal crew who now carry on their proud tradition and who guide this extraordinary system into the future.
In our quest to provide everyone with as much of a real time experience as possible, we bring you our first video blog.
The Lois McClure is currently docked above lock E2 in Waterford, to avoid strong currents and high waters brought on by heavy rain in the Mohawk Valley. We’re working closely with New York State Canal Corps, and are working on revising the schedule to accomodate the weather days.
At 10:00 a..m. on May 31st, the tug C. L. Churchill towed the replica Lake Champlain Canal schooner Lois McClure, with the outboard-powered, inflatable boat Oocher standing by, out of her narrow berth at Perkins Pier in Burlington harbor. We were getting underway for the schooner’s tenth voyage, a four-month trip carrying a cargo of history on a tour of New York and Canadian canals, canals that, as we pointed out on the cover of our visitors’ brochure, were “born of the War of 1812.” The McClure is embarked on a three-year project to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the War and to celebrate 200 years of ensuing peace. But she is a cargo-carrier, not a warship, so we make the connection via the historical fact that both New York’s Erie Canal and Canada’s Rideau Canal were inspired, in part, by the two countries’ perceived need for internal waterways on which to move military forces and supplies in the event of recurring hostilities after the Treaty of Ghent in 1815. Happily, the heavy traffic on these canals has been commercial.
Our first port-of-call would be Plattsburgh, New York, where we would be the only floating one on a tour of local museums. We towed out through Burlington harbor on a short towline, for good maneuverability, and, once outside the breakwater, lengthened the hawser out to its full 200 feet and headed north on Lake Champlain. In open water, like the broad part of the lake, where it can get rough, we separate tug and tow, while in protected water, we tow with the tug snugged up on the schooner’s hip. Hip-towing gives us much better maneuverability, but wouldn’t do if waves were big enough to make the boats roll against each other. Once well up into Cumberland Bay, we did put the Churchill on the hip and went in to tie up at Plattsburgh’s big stone pier, Wilcox Dock. The landing was made with Erick Tichonuk, the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum‘s co-director, who had wisely traded his desk for the schooner’s deck for the day, at the conn. The next day, the thunder squalls held off until after closing time, so that not one of our 150 visitors got wet. And the following day’s 150 didn’t even have to worry about rain.
On June 3rd, we towed back south on the lake to our second home port, North Harbor, the Museum’s waterfront at Basin Harbor. The advantage of towing on the hawser was demonstrated as the northwest breeze came up to fresh, about 20 knots. Art Cohn (he’s the man who runs this cruise as the Museum’s Director of Special Projects) and I were in the tug’s wheelhouse, and one roll sent the helmsman’s stool flying. Off Essex, we had to slow to let the two ferries from and to Charlotte both cross ahead of us. A rare coincidental timing of our passage had put us nearly on a collision course with both vessels.
As you may remember from previous logs, the schooner’s berth at North Harbor is complicated. We moor her to a floating dock across from the PhiladelphiaII, the replica of one of Benedict Arnold’s gunboats of 1776. We hold the McClure in position against the float with one mooring line, an anchor planted off the bow, and two or three long lines to trees, then tie her up to the float with the usual dock lines. This day’s mooring operation was further complicated by the unusually high water in the lake. The floating dock had to be way up in the head of the cove so there would be access to it, but that meant that there wouldn’t be depth enough for the Churchill to bring the schooner alongside it. So we picked up the outside mooring and sent the tug safely to another mooring. Luckily (luck is a huge factor in seamanship), the wind was still in the north and had gone downa lot. We used it to let the schooner’s stern swing round toward the floating dock and then blow us slowly right in alongside it, with help from the Oocher pushing and pulling on the stern as needed.
The next two days at North Harbor gave the crew the chance to move their gear on board for the four months’ trip. Let’s see: foul weather clothing, including the big boots; clothes to keep from sweltering in an Upstate New York heat wave and from getting hypothermia in a cold rain on the Richelieu River in September; Museum semi-uniforms for acting as docents serving our floating museum; four months’ worth of books to read in off-hours; and, yes, computers and I-pads. I understand that some of the younger crew members even brought tiny, portable telephones that can double as cameras! And we loaded plenty more ship’s gear on board: firewood for the cabin stove; one more small, and thus readily portable, anchor; sandwich boards to advertise our presence in our ports-of-call; display panels and brochures for visitors, to tell our story of the War of 1812 and of the role of a sailing canal boat of 1862.
On June 6th, we were ready to cast off. A new crew member was on board for two days, Sarah Harris, a reporter for Vermont’s North Country Public Radio. She prowled the schooner from end to end, on deck and below, microphone in hand, recording not only our answers to her questions, but also the sounds of a vessel underway. By now, perhaps you have heard her program about the Lois McClure. She was a good shipmate.
The lake was as calm as a clock, so we towed on the hip across to the Westport Marina, where we tied up to pump out sanitary tanks and fill water and fuel tanks. Then it was south on the lake for an overnight stop at Crown Point. I’ve waxed somewhat poetic about this lovely, protected berth in previous logs, even pausing to try to describe it by moonlight, but on this night, there was no moon to be seen.In the morning, we continued south to Whitehall in a light drizzle. North of Larrabee’s Point, we passed a large snag, apparently most of a tree, with one end struck in the mud 25 feet below the surface and the other end barely showing. It will probably be there for awhile, so we marked it on the chart for future reference. If it becomes a semi-permanent fixture, it will show up on all charts.
When we got to Larrabee’s Point, sure enough, there was the cable ferry coming across exactly on a collision course. So, again, we slowed to let him cross our bow, giving him extra room because of the cable hanging off his stern. Off Fort Ticonderoga, we met the tour boat Carillon returning from Whitehall to her dock at Larrabee’s Point, Shoreham. She is a wonderful-looking craft, long and slim, and, as usual, she was running fast and leaving little wake. We exchanged whistles with her skipper, Paul Sanger, and waves with her happy passengers.
The south end of Lake Champlain is spectacular in any weather. On this misty day, with low clouds obscuring the higher elevations, it was eerily beautiful. When we got to Fiddler’s Elbow, we slowed off the late Cora Archambault’s house and gave the memory of that great lady respectful, loving music from the tug’s horn. After being lifted through Lock 12 at Whitehall, the first of many locks on this trip, we made a nice, soft landing on the wall by the Skenesboro Museum, with First Mate Tom Larsen at the conn.
On June 8th, the citizens of Whitehall turned out in force as they always do for our visit to their historic town (Skenesboro, birthplace of the U. S. Navy, is the claim), and, as always, enlightening discussions reverberated in the cargo hold. The visitors included Bob Dollar, a longtime Museum volunteer who is an expert on rope and ropework and is responsible for our heavy-duty rope fenders on both the schooner and the tug.
The next day, we started south on the Champlain Canal toward an overnight stop at Schuylerville. Anyone looking for an apt definition of an “obstacle course” could do worse than offer the comparison to a canal. June 9th provided an example. At Lock 11, the light was red and the lock keeper reported on the radio that an essential part needed to be replaced. The delay turned out to be only an hour.
Then, after Lock 7, it took time to negotiate our way through the huge dredging project downstream of Fort Edward, where General Electric is cleaning out mud contaminated with pcbs, including meeting a big barge in the narrow approach to Lock 6. He needed most of the channel, so we eased to a stop way over in the trees, where, luckily, there was deep water. One of my favorite things about living on a boat is not having to rake leaves, but I found myself on this day doing just that. Off Lock 5, we stopped briefly to let Bob Foster’s stern-wheel tour boat, the Caldwell Belle, exit the lock and head upstream. Tied up to the approach wall to Lock 5 at Schuylerville just after 6:00 p.m. After supper on deck, all hands turned in early.
On June 10th, the obstacle course turned into a race course. The trip down to Waterford is mostly in the Hudson River, with minimal canal work. There had been a good deal of rain up river, so we had a favorable current of up to two knots. You wouldn’t think that it would feel much different traveling at 7 knots instead of at 5 knots, but it does. Instead of “When are we going to get there?” it’s “Are we there already?” As we approached Lock 2, we heard from the keeper that he was just lifting some boats coming up, so it would be 20 minutes before he’d be ready for us to enter the filled lock. So, to avoid being pushed too close to the lock by the current, we chose to turn into it, using the Oocher to shove the bow round while staying in the channel, and then just headed up into the current at idling speed, which kept us about stationary in the river. When we saw the lock gates open, we Ooched back around and headed in.
By 2:00 p. m., we were all the way down to Waterford and turning into the port. We went right into Lock E2, the first lock on the Erie Canal. And moored to the wall just above the lock. We would have tied up down in the port, but John Callaghan, Deputy Director of the New York Canal Corporation, warned that there was a forecast of heavy rain in two days and that the canal might have to shut down. In that case, we’d be best off separated from the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers in spate by Lock E2.
It’s now two days later, and we haven’t moved an inch. The Erie Canal is shut down due to high water and heavy current in the Mohawk. And this is before the big rain due late tomorrow. We are standing by, waiting to see how much flooding there may be and how soon we can resume our journey. Meanwhile, we are in a perfectly safe berth, and the Canal Corporation folks and local citizens are committing random acts of kindness. Mercy!
Although we have been planning the next installment of 1812: Commemorating the War: Celebrating the Peace since before we returned from last years incredible voyage, the recent crossing from Burlington to Plattsburgh was an unexpected experience. The challenge of getting the three boats ready, creating the interpretive materials that connects the travel to the mission, coordinating logistics with over 40 communities in two countries and securing the essential sponsorships that empower us to continue this mission has been so intense this year that by the time the “meeting on deck” took place at 8:00 AM on Friday, May 31st, I had not focused much on actually traveling. However, all the preparation was apparent as our veteran crew of Captain Roger, Erick, Tom, Kerry, Len, Chris McClain and Carolyn Kennedy began to tow Lois out of her slip at Burlington Harbor and turned north towards Plattsburgh, our first stop of this 40-community 2013 tour.
With land fading behind and the broad lake appearing out the tugboat’s pilothouse windows, we began the journey that will take us as far west as Buffalo then back home via Oswego, the St. Lawrence River to Montreal and the Richelieu River back to Lake Champlain and home. Our focus this year is to present the highlights of the 1813 campaign and traveling to Buffalo on the western end of the Erie Canal and whose harbor connects to the eastern end of Lake Erie seems the perfect destination to remember the 200th anniversary of the American victory at the Battle of Lake Erie.
By 1813 it had become clear to both sides that control of the Great Lakes was the key to success and a shipbuilding contest testing the skill, resolve and resourcefulness of each side began. By September 10, 1813, the two squadrons on Lake Erie were ready for battle and the American fleet under the command of Oliver Hazard Perry won the day over their British counterparts. Sailing with Captain Roger, a descendant of Commodore Perry’s, we will interpret this important event and the people, ships and shipwrecks that were involved. We will tell the story on the Battle of the Thames, where Shawnee Chief Tecumseh fell and William Henry Harrison rose, and the failed American attempt to take Montreal via Lake Champlain and the St. Lawrence River. We will explore the fierce action on the Niagara Peninsula just before the 1813 campaign came to an end. Our discussion of 1813 will help set the stage for 1814, the final year of the war, and the decisive land and naval Battle of Lake Champlain that helped bring the War of 1812 to a negotiated close.
Heading toward Plattsburgh at our normal traveling speed of 5 mph, this year’s tour began to be very real to me. It was as if someone turned a switch and I found myself transforming from a hectic land person to a slow-moving nautical historian. As I watched Captain Roger lay out a course to take us west of the dangerous Colchester Shoals my mind turned to the familiar but dormant story about the burning of the 1819 steamboat Phoenix. I had just had a conversation with Erick about Ernie Haas, maritime painter extraordinaire who was opening a show of his art at the museum. Ernie has been the master at translating historic episodes into a visual image for almost two decades and the “Burning of the Steamboat Phoenix” was one of the first of a series of dramatic paintings Ernie did for us. This painting and many others will be on exhibit at our Basin Harbor’s Owen Gallery until mid-summer.
Now as we passed by the final resting place of one of the world’s earliest steamboats, the circumstances of that disaster came flooding back to me and reminded me of another connection to the War of 1812 story. The Phoenix had been laid down in Vergennes soon after Commodore McDonough’s stunning victory at Plattsburgh had secured the lake. In 1815 Phoenix began traveling the long lake route from St. Johns to Whitehall, proudly demonstrating the superiority of steam over wind-power. That message was apparently not lost on the lake sailors who resented and feared the new technology would bring an end to their way of life. So it was that on a nighttime passage from Burlington to Plattsburgh, the Phoenix was engulfed in fire and her sleeping passengers and crew were thrown into the terror of survival. The two lifeboats were partially filled and sent to Providence Island but a dozen passengers and crew were left aboard the burning steamboat and of those six perished.
It is now almost 200 years since the end of the War of 1812 and as we pass the Phoenix’s resting place we are heading to Plattsburgh, the scene of the most important military victory of that war. Our mission is to interpret 1813 and the canals that were born shortly after peace was negotiated. I wanted to begin in Plattsburgh because of its intimate connection to the 1812 story, as well as to take part in Clinton County Museum Weekend. This weekend is when all the wonderful museum’s of the county are opened to the public for free. As it turned out, this was a perfect way to begin this years journey.
I was able to connect with many old friends, divers, historians, museum worker and we saw over 300 enthusiastic visitors aboard the Lois McClure, our historical time machine. Its always so rewarding to see how pleased and satisfied the visitors become which, in turn, excited our veteran crew.
Young, old and everyone in between seems to appreciate the stories about shipwrecks, canals and canal schooners, war and peace, hard working families, trucks and interstates and canal boats and interconnected waterways. It still surprises me how well these stories resonate with our visitors. Their smiles, comments and questions make all the effort worthwhile.The warm apple pie from Bev and Bill Leege and the donuts from Mayor Don Kasprzak added to our sense of connection with the community.
This wonderful first port-of-call has energized this crew to look forward to the next 4-months and thousands of conversations we expect to have. We leave this morning for Basin Harbor and two days of final preparation then point the boat to the canal to begin the working our way south and west to connect with Lake Erie and the battle that brought the American’s a much needed victory.