We are rapidly approaching the end of October where thoughts turn dark as the sun sets early. Halloween prompts us to think in eerie, spooky, and macabre tones. These are not exactly typical thoughts when one thinks of Lake Champlain. How many enjoying the water’s surface on a sparkling summer day are aware of the dark, cold, somewhat grisly, lake bottom or realize they are playing in a graveyard.
On the water activity
Lake Champlain stretches over 120 miles north and south, and 12 miles at its widest point. That’s 435 square miles of surface that currently occupies paddlers, sailors, fishermen, and dozens of other water recreation enthusiasts. Recreation, of course, was not always the primary activity. We know the lake was a major transportation route for Native Americans and migratory animals. Later activity included European exploration and military conflict as claims were staked on this continent. During the 1800s, as our country was being settled and developed, the lake served as a principal commercial transportation route to ship goods and materials north and south, and east and west across the lake. This lake, during that time period, was hustling and bustling with activity. Anyone with a view of the lake had to have continual entertainment.
The lake bottom is home to over 300 known shipwrecks. We can thank the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum for all that we know about them. For decades their marine scientists, historians, and archeologists have been diligently identifying, researching, and documenting shipwreck information on the murky bottom of Lake Champlain. Some of the shipwrecks discovered were from the time of military conflict, but a good share began their permanent rest on the lake bottom during the commercial era when steamboats, canal schooners, and ferries were predominant on the lake. Often these ships had tragic endings and blame was frequently laid to the Champlain Witch.
The Champlain Witch
I’m not sure when, or where, the Champlain Witch legend began, but it is common knowledge among serious local long-term sailors and boaters on this lake - even today. Some swear this lake is haunted by a very vengeful witch; perhaps a mother, or a lover, who lost a young sailor to these waters many years ago. It’s the Champlain Witch that gets the credit for the freak pop-up storms, rogue waves, and other unusual on-the-water occurrences that often end in tragedy. Champlain Valley folklorist and musician Banjo Dan even recorded a song about her, published on his album Mystery and Memories.
A final sail
Legend has it that it was the Champlain Witch that was responsible for the tragic fate of the Sarah Ellen in 1860 which now lies on the lake bottom somewhere between Willsboro Point and her intended destination, Burlington, Vermont. The Sarah Ellen was a sailing cargo schooner with two masts; closely resembling the Lois McClure, LCMM’s replica canal schooner. Sarah Ellen spent her entire short life, 11 years, entirely on Lake Champlain. The ship was built in Isle la Motte, Vermont and was approximately 73 feet long and 15 feet wide, not exactly a small boat at all. It is estimated that she could carry approximately 60 tons of cargo. History claims that she was fully laden with Willsboro’s blue stone when she set sail for Vermont on December 19, 1860. She was traveling with another schooner, the Daniel Webster, as they headed east toward Burlington.
The Captain, Henry Clay, was a very young sailor at only 21 years old. On board he had one crewman, Joseph LaPlante, and had also brought along his bride of only a couple of months, Lucy Whitney. Local residents can verify that it can get awfully cold in December on the lake, and winter storms during that time are not uncommon. Probably anxious to make a living for his new family, especially with winter coming — and therefore no shipping activity — on the horizon, the young Captain may have felt it was worth the risk. He also did not have the advantage of today’s forecasting technology. Storms can pop up very quickly on the lake at any time during the year and such was the case on that fateful day. The broad section of Lake Champlain can see some pretty severe wave action during a storm. That, coupled with the freezing temps, hampered all sailing conditions, icing over sails, riggings, and steering mechanisms. Lake Champlain Maritime Museum’s research team has uncovered the details. It was speculated that the Sarah Ellen may have sprung a plank with such heavy cargo, or took water over the bow; regardless she began to sink. LCMM’s research also uncovered some eye-witness accounts from the crew of the Daniel Webster. The three people aboard the Sarah Ellen struggled to free the lifeboat that was covered with ice and managed to get it in the water, but remained clinging to it, not inside, as the Daniel Webster attempted to come about for a rescue. Keep in mind these boats had no motors, nor any brakes. When the companion schooner reached the lifeboat they managed to pull LaPlante aboard, but the impact against the lifeboat coming alongside knocked the Captain and his bride free into the water. The Daniel Webster made another attempt, but the couple disappeared into the freezing water of Lake Champlain before they were able to be rescued. Many are convinced this was the work of the jealous Champlain Witch, else why would the crewman be saved while the young couple perished?
In 1989, Lake Champlain Maritime Museum marine archeologists found the Sarah Ellen at a depth of 300 feet, and completely documented the shipwreck making use of a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). They tell us it is in incredible preserved condition due to the cold water at this depth as well as the absence of any light.
You too, can explore many Lake Champlain shipwrecks, by way of ROV, without even getting wet. Visit the LCMM, open May through October, to learn about their shipwreck tours. Their museum tells the story of centuries of the lake’s maritime history. Watch for the Lois McClure as she often visits our Lake Champlain Region ports, allowing you to step onboard and see what life was like on a canal schooner.
Nine of the discovered shipwrecks are part of the Lake Champlain Underwater Preserve System. Brave, certified divers can register annually to visit these preserved sites, but are warned to treat them with respect. Remember, many of these are gravesites and may be continued to be haunted by the Champlain Witch.