Launching the Lois McClure

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(Host) This Fourth of July commentator Tom Slayton is celebrating a new link to the history of Lake Champlain.

(Slayton) This afternoon at 3:30 in Burlington harbor, Art Cohn of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum will begin reintroducing Vermonters to a forgotten era in Lake Champlain’s maritime history. That’s when the huge Canal Schooner that Cohn and several Burlington area boatbuilders have been working on for nearly two years will be launched.

The schooner is named the Lois B. McClure, and it is BIG. It’s 88 feet long — as long as a couple of ranch houses set end-to-end. Handbuilt from white oak and pine by a crew of skilled Burlington area boatbuilders, it’s a boat with presence and is intimately connected to Lake Champlain’s long history. Nothing like it has been launched on Lake Champlain for more than a century.

Today, Champlain is primarily a fishing and boating playground. But a hundred years ago it was a working lake, alive with commercial traffic, and every commodity from hay to logs to iron ore was shipped up and down its length and beyond. The lake was the main commercial thoroughfare between Canada and New York City.

The hulking boat that will be launched today is an exact replica of a special type of schooner — a schooner made large and long and comparatively narrow because it had to be able to sail on the broad lake and yet carry tons of cargo through the
narrow canal that connects the southern end of Lake Champlain with the northern end of the Hudson River and, ultimately, New York.

The sailing canal schooners were the shipping workhorses of their day, and there were hundreds of them out on the lake in the late 1800s.

The boat was invented on Lake Champlain but had nearly been forgotten until Cohn and other divers discovered their shipwrecked hulls on the bottom of Lake Champlain.

Every detail of the historic boat is recreated with painstaking accuracy. For example, its paint-scheme — red below waterline, green-and-white above — was taken from a model made by a retired steamboat pilot who actually saw the schooners in action. To clarify the boatbuilders’ understanding of the historic boat’s construction, Cohn took them down in SCUBA gear to look at the sunken wrecks, preserved on the bottom of Lake Champlain.

The resulting boat is massive and wonderful — but it’s just the beginning. Cohn hopes it will become a teaching tool that will reintroduce Vermonters to a vital era in their history. And so there will be demonstrations and sailing trips, school curricula, and lectures.

Ultimately, Cohn hopes that learning more about Lake Champlain will make Vermonters care more about the lake and be better stewards of it. We should all hope for that: Lake Champlain is an incredible resource — a whole wet, living ecosystem glittering right at our doorstep.

The new canal schooner will be a key to learning more about that immense resource — and helping to save it for the future.

Tom SLayton is editor of Vermont Life magazine.

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