A new Underwater Historic Preserve in Lake Champlain will open for divers this summer, thanks to a 2017 Corridor of Commerce Grant from the Champlain Valley National Heritage Partnership. “We are excited that the 1880 tugboat U. S. La Vallee will become a new preserve,” says Chris Sabick, Archaeological Director at Lake Champlain Maritime Museum (LCMM) and Maritime Research Institute (MRI). “We will use the grant funds to establish the infrastructure that makes it possible for divers to safely visit the wreck site. Providing public interpretation of the wreck is also an important part of the project.” The U. S. La Vallee is an example of the small, steam-powered commercial tugs that operated along the east coast and inland waterways of the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
“This well-preserved tugboat shipwreck was thoroughly examined and documented during the summer of 2015 and is ready for addition to the Vermont’s Underwater Historic Preserve System once the infrastructure is in place,” says Scott Dillon, Survey Archaeologist with the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation. Dillon directs the management of Vermont’s Underwater Historic Preserve System. “Our goal is to protect the wreck while safely providing access to this historic resource for the community.” The U. S. La Vallee mooring infrastructure will become the property of the State of Vermont once the new preserve is established.
“The importance of this wreck cannot be overemphasized,” explains Art Cohn, LCMM Director Emeritus. “Lake Champlain’s hardworking commercial vessels rarely received public notice while performing their important but unglamorous duties. U.S. La Vallee is also one of very few steamboat wrecks in Lake Champlain that still have an engine and other machinery on board.” The tug’s overall excellent condition presents a unique opportunity for archaeologists to study small late-nineteenth-century steamboat construction, design and technology. This makes the vessel an exciting addition to the lake’s collection of Underwater Historic Preserves.
The wreck of U. S. La Vallee was located in deep water in Shelburne Bay in July, 1996, during Lake Champlain Maritime Museum’s Sonar Survey of the lake. The vessel was sitting intact and upright on the bottom in excellent condition, except for the wheelhouse, whose curved windows appear to have been blown outward. Trapped air may have torn apart the vessel’s wheelhouse in a violent explosion during the vessel’s sinking.
Research, primarily conducted by historian A. Peter Barranco, Jr., revealed that the small wooden tugboat called Henry Lloyd, later renamed U.S. La Vallee, was launched in 1880 at Brooklyn, New York. In that era, hundreds of coal-fired screw steamers served as towing and service craft for coastal and inland shipping. After just three years of service in Brooklyn and in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, the tug was sold to a firm in Georgetown, South Carolina, where she remained for 37 years. During this time, the vessel was rebuilt and enlarged from 40.5 ft. to 56.1 ft. in length. In 1920, her license was surrendered at New York City as “dismantled, unfit for use.”
This was not the final chapter for Henry Lloyd, however: in 1923 the tug was listed in Albany, NY as “abandoned; district, hail and property changed, re-documented,” when she was acquired by John E. Matton, who operated a shipyard and fleet of tugboats based on the Hudson River at Cohoes, New York. An earlier Matton shipyard in Waterford had primarily built canal boats; the new Matton yard served the NY Barge Canal system. Most of the tugs used on the New York canals were old vessels from the New York Harbor area that were cut down for canal use. Henry Lloyd’s original tall stack may have been cut down at this time. Matton also renamed the tug: Henry Lloyd became U.S. La Vallee, and remained in Matton’s service for six years.
In 1929, Burlington, VT contractor James E. Cashman purchased U.S. La Vallee from Matton. This time the tug truly was worn out, and much effort was spent to keep the vessel afloat. A 1929 photograph of Shelburne Shipyard shows the tug on the marine railway. Captain Merritt Carpenter recalled that about that time, the men who operated her began to use the nickname “Useless Valley.” Finally, in 1931, Cashman abandoned efforts to stop the tug’s leaks, and had the tug towed out into deep water in Shelburne Bay and scuttled. U.S. La Vallee would not be seen again for sixty-five years.
“We are delighted that more people will now be able to explore the U. S. La Vallee and appreciate her story,” says Sabick. “If you don’t want to wait until summer, there’s a page on the Museum’s web site – it even includes a documentary video created by students at Vergennes Middle School, as part of their FUSION after-school program, in partnership with LCMM.”
The Lake Champlain Underwater Historic Preserve System was established to provide public access for divers to some of the Lake’s historic shipwrecks. Access to the sites in the Lake Champlain Underwater Historic Preserve is free of charge, but divers must register annually prior to using the Preserve System. The system is designed to protect these irreplaceable historic resources both from anchor damage and artifact collecting. With the cooperation of the recreational diving community these wrecks will be available for generations of divers to enjoy.
For more information please contact:
Christopher Sabick, Archaeological Director, Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, (802) 475-2022 ext. 110, Chriss@lcmm.org
Scott Dillon, Survey Archaeologist, Vermont Division for Historic Preservation: (802) 272-7358 firstname.lastname@example.org