On December 9, 1876, Captain William Montgomery set out on Lake Champlain aboard his barge the General Butler, carrying a load of marble from a quarry in Isle La Motte, Vermont, to a company in Burlington that made tombstones. He was lucky he didn’t need one himself that day.
As Montgomery approached Burlington, he got caught in what would become known as “the storm of the century”, forcing him to abandon ship within sight of the port. With waves pummeling the boat, he and his passengers leapt one-by-one onto the ice-covered stone breakwater in the harbor.
“People were gathered on the waterfront watching this saga unfold,” explained Erick Tichonuk of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. “And by all accounts, right as William Montgomery made the jump, the last to leave his sinking ship, the General Butler disappeared beneath the waves.”
That same year marked the dramatic disappearance of something else in Lake Champlain.
In his 1876 report to the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries, Winslow Watson remarked on the decline of the once abundant salmon in the watershed as a result of steamboat traffic, railroad construction, and the “most formidable and indeed insuperable obstacle” to migratory fish: “the innumerable dams constructed on almost all of the streams near their mouths.”
The date is a coincidence. The drama is connected. Canal boats like the General Butler, and captains like Montgomery who were driven to take risks for economic gain, symbolized the massive ecological transformation that took place in the Lake Champlain Basin in the 19th century. Early settlers clear cut forests to harvest timber, which led to erosion of streambanks that filled creeks with silt. Dams, built to power mills, blocked the rivers from fish passage. The cumulative impact of these activities led to the complete loss of native landlocked Atlantic salmon in the Champlain Basin by the mid 1800s.
So why revisit this history now? Because you can visit it in person.
This year, in honor of the International Year of the Salmon, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has partnered with the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, Lake Champlain Basin Program, and the Champlain Valley National Heritage Partnership to share the story of the remarkable comeback of Lake Champlain’s salmon population through a life-sized symbol of the era of its decline.
The canal schooner Lois McClure, which acts as a kind of mobile museum welcoming visitors aboard for free while docked at various ports of call, was built to spec from an underwater archaeological study in the 1980s of two wrecks, including the General Butler, which is still sitting on the bottom of the lake with its hold full of marble.
About a decade earlier, the partners that now make up the Lake Champlain Fish and Wildlife Management Cooperative — including the Service, Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation — came together to figure out how to salvage another wreck: the native landlocked Atlantic salmon population.
Since the 1970s, these and other partners have developed a coordinated, adaptive, science-driven program to reintroduce salmon to the basin and address the factors that led to their demise. Factors linked directly to the economic growth fueled by canal boats like the General Butler, like declining water quality, habitat loss, the introduction of invasive species through the canal system, and of course, the construction of dams.
The partners focused initially on reestablishing a salmon fishery in the lake by stocking salmon from state and federal fish hatcheries, and by controlling parasitic sea lamprey — which likely entered Lake Champlain through the canal, and can fatally wound salmon.
Now partners are looking beyond the fishery toward the long-term goal of a self-sustaining salmon population, and working together to get there by improving habitat in and along Lake Champlain’s tributaries, and refining techniques in hatcheries to better prepare salmon for the real world. For example, raising young salmon in brook water rather than in well water so they will develop the ability to imprint and home back to the stretch of river where they are stocked or born.
Partners are also collaborating to address that “insuperable obstacle”: dams that prevent salmon from migrating up tributary rivers in the Champlain basin to spawn and reproduce.
Today, there are about 442 dams and 13,822 culverts in the Lake Champlain Basin, not including its Canadian tributaries. But wherever possible, the Service and partners have been working to remove obsolete barriers to open access to upstream spawning habitat.
Where it’s not possible — as on the Winooski River, where the Winooski One hydropower dam produces enough energy to power more than 2,700 homes for an entire year — partners are improving fish passage through other means. Like a fish lift and trucking program, where salmon get a ride above the first of three dams on the Winooski, and research-based modifications to fish-passage structures to enable juvenile salmon to migrate downstream to the lake to mature and help their population grow.
The story of salmons’ comeback in the basin is complex, involving myriad interconnected partners, sites, activities, and studies. But the Lois McClure provides a portal for visitors to see the big picture. Exhibit panels describe how partners have worked together to address historical threats to salmon like dams and habitat degradation, and emerging threats like climate change, and the crew brings to life the era of fateful transformations represented in the boat’s design.
Like the spacious cargo hold, which for most of the year would have been packed with shipping crates full of goods for market, from ice to coal to turkeys to marble.
And the small but well-appointed quarters, which would have been the year-round home for the likes of William Montgomery and his family.
And the enormous sail, which spared captains the expense of getting towed across the lake to the canal, and as it turns out, was unique to canal boats on Lake Champlain. Before the 1980s, it was common knowledge that sailing canal boats never existed in North America. The wreck of the General Butler suggested otherwise.
Tichonuk was part of the team that explored the wreck after its discovery in 1980, measuring every dimension, and documenting every detail. He explained that the boat featured “obvious elements of sail”, including a tabernacle — like a cup holder for the mast, that could be opened on one side so the 70-foot tall structure could be lowered before the boat entered the heavily bridged canal.
A replica of a style of boat that had been lost to history, the Lois McClure is its own comeback story.
On course for recovery
Before disembarking from the Lois McClure, I was recruited to help furl, or stow, her mainsail — a 1,309 square-foot, unruly sheet of heavy canvas.
“You just reach down, get a good arm’s length, bring it back up on top of the boom, and then keep folding it over itself,” Tichonuk instructed the crew. “We’re going to make it look like ribbon candy.”
Forty-five minutes later, it did — more or less. With the sail neatly stowed, it would be easier for the crew to raise at the end of the day when the Lois McClure got underway for the first of a series of visits to ports on the New York side of the lake. Its next stop would be Westport, then Plattsburgh, and then Willsboro.
In Plattsburgh, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is working on lowering the first dam on the Saranac River, and providing fish passage that will allow the salmon to migrate above the dam to spawn.
In Willsboro, the first dam is already gone. “Willsboro is a big one, because a dam was removed there recently,” Tichonuk said, referring to the partner-driven effort to remove the obsolete Willsboro Dam that stood between salmon and more than 70 miles of spawning habitat in the Boquet River.
“Now they are finding naturally-born salmon fry above the former dam site,” he said, “Everybody seems pretty excited about it, especially the salmon I suspect.”
No wonder. It’s the first time in 150 years that naturally born salmon have been documented anywhere in the Lake Champlain Basin. It’s history in the making.
Environmental change and human impacts across the Northern Hemisphere are placing salmon at risk. The International Year of the Salmon (IYS) aims to bring people together to share and develop knowledge more effectively, raise awareness and take action. 2019 is the focal year of the IYS, with research and outreach continuing through to 2022. Learn more at: https://yearofthesalmon.org/
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been working with partners including the Lake Champlain Basin Program, Champlain Valley National Heritage Partnership, Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department and New York State Department of Environmental on a series of displays, presentations, videos, and events to recognize the history, ecology ,and restoration of salmon in the basin. Learn more at: http://www.lcbp.org/water-environment/ecosystem-healt/international-year-of-the-salmon/