Published January 13, 2015
The upstate New York village that bills itself as the birthplace of the U.S. Navy hasn't done much to preserve one of the service's oldest warship relics: the hull of a schooner that was the first in a long line of American vessels to carry the name Ticonderoga.
The wooden remains of the War of 1812 ship are displayed in a long, open-sided shed on the grounds of the Skenesborough Museum in Whitehall. They've been stored there since being raised from the southern end of Lake Champlain by a local historical group more than 50 years ago. Now, with the approach of 200th anniversary of the battle at which the first Ticonderoga gained its fame, a maritime historian is hoping something can be done to stem the deterioration of a rare naval artifact.
"It was recovered for all the right reasons but before we knew all the implications of a shipwreck and bringing it up into an air environment," said Arthur Cohn, senior adviser and special projects developer at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Vergennes, Vt.
Cohn has suggested to museum officials that the hull needs be stored in an enclosed, climate-controlled building with interpretive displays telling the vessel's story. But the museum's director said such a project would be cost-prohibitive for her organization and for Whitehall, a village of 3,000 65 miles northeast of Albany on the Vermont border.
"That would take more money than anyone in the village of Whitehall could put together," Carol Greenough said.
In 1776, during the American Revolution, Benedict Arnold oversaw the building of a small fleet of vessels in what is now Whitehall. That October, Arnold led this ragtag flotilla north to Valcour Island off Plattsburgh, where the outgunned Americans were defeated but forced the British to put off their invasion of New York until the following year. Roadside signs in Whitehall tout the village's claim as the birthplace of the U.S. Navy, a distinction that's been claimed by several New England communities.
The Ticonderoga started out as a merchant steamer before the U.S. Navy bought it while it was still under construction. The Navy completed it as a schooner, armed it with more than a dozen heavy cannon and launched the vessel as the Ticonderoga in May 1814.
Four months later, on Sept. 11, the Ticonderoga was part of the American fleet that defeated the British at the Battle of Plattsburgh on the lake's northern end. The U.S. victory stopped the redcoats from advancing farther into New York and ended their efforts to invade from the north.
Afterward, the ship and several others were sent south to Whitehall, where they were anchored in a southern extremity of Lake Champlain known as East Bay. The Navy removed the Ticonderoga's rigging and fittings, and a decade later it was deemed unworthy of repair and sold. The ship eventually sank into the bay, its upper structure disappearing after years of exposure to wind, waves and ice.
Four other Navy warships have carried the name Ticonderoga, including a World War II aircraft carrier that saw action in the Pacific.
New York has no plans to preserve the Ticonderoga, but local entities could apply for matching funding for such a project, according to Mark Peckham of the state parks department.
The locations of several British and American shipwrecks from the Revolutionary War and War of 1812 have been found in the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain, but the Ticonderoga remains one of a handful of warships from those conflicts that's easily accessible to the public, Peckham said.
"This has survived better than most," he said.