New Lake Champlain Wreck Open For Divers

In Lake Champlain, 100 feet down in the dark and chilly waters of Shelburne Bay, the U.S. La Vallee tugboat sits upright and in nearly perfect condition. Aside from the windows, blown out from air pressure upon the boat’s sinking, it is completely intact, with its original paint and a steel plaque that lists details about its unique steam-powered engine.

Chris Sabick, archaeological director at Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, dove on the shipwreck after it was found in 1996. “It’s this one moment in history, frozen in time and place at the bottom of the lake, and that’s thrilling,” he said. We like to say it’s like shaking hands with history. The fact that it’s dark and cold, that can add a certain mood to the diving that can make it even more exhilarating – some drama. Whether you’re easily spooked or not is a whole other question. To see this wreck looming up out of the darkness, it’s really us-lavalleecool.”

Not to mention the history, he added. The U.S. Vallee is a small wooden steam- powered tugboat – a rare specimen, especially in Lake Champlain.

On July 13, the U.S. La Vallee was added to the Underwater Historic Preserves System, a network of nine ships throughout the lake that have been designated for recreational scuba diving. This wreck is the first to be added to the system in 15 years.

Jonathan Eddy, owner of the Waterfront Dive Center in Burlington, will begin chartering tours to the wreck starting in mid-to-late July.

“There’s a lot of interest in these shipwrecks,” he said. “For local divers who dive with us all the time, having a new wreck in the preserve is exciting because they may have done a dozen dives on any given vessel in the preserve system.”

Because of the wreck’s depth, it’s classified as an advanced dive, but a dive made much easier by its addition to the state-run Underwater Historic Preserve System. The program establishes underwater parks, providing divers safe access to selected shipwrecks. Wrecks included in the system are marked with yellow, three-foot-wide “special purpose” buoys, to which divers can moor their boats. Then, the divers follow the buoy line all the way down to the wreck.

“In the past, as a diver, you found a shipwreck to dive on by dragging your anchor along the bottom until you snagged on something, and then you dove down and took a look at it. That’s obviously not good for the wrecks,” Sabick said. “This way, it’s much safer for the diver, and for the wreck itself. That’s the guiding principle here, that it’s better for everybody.”

Research by museum historians has revealed snippets of the U.S. La Vallee’s story. The tugboat first launched from Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1880 under the name Henry Lloyd, when hundreds of coal-fired steamers served as towing and service boats in the shipping industry. Then, it moved to New Jersey for three years, and was finally sold to a firm in Georgetown, South Carolina, where it stayed for 37 years. In 1920, the boat’s license was surrendered in New York City and deemed “dismantled, unfit for use.”

But in 1923, John E. Matton bought Henry Lloyd, renaming it U.S La Vallee. When it was finally passed to Vermont, sold to James E. Cashman in Burlington in 1929, the boat was so old that crew members nicknamed it “The Useless Vallee.” In 1931, Cashman stopped mending the old tugboat’s leaks. He pulled it out to the middle of Shelburne Bay and scuttled it– sinking it one hundred feet down, and it has remained on the lake floor ever since.

“Like many things that are utilitarian and every-day in their working life, they were deemed to be that exactly: utilitarian and every-day, and therefore not documented to any great extent,” Sabick said. “It had become a useless piece of junk to them, but for us, it’s a really neat little time capsule, particularly with that little steam engine, which is just not something we see on a boat that size – and certainly not on Lake Champlain.”

Tours from the Waterfront Dive Shop ($50 per diver) will be announced on the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum’s website, lcmm.org.

Emma Cotton

Emma moved to the Green Mountain State a year ago, but has felt at home here for 20. Find her exploring the mountains when she's not posted up with a good book.