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Marker at the waters edge. Photo by the author.
At the beginning of the War of 1812, the American navy had no ships to speak of on Lake Champlain. There were two vessels-the sloops Hunter and Bulldog. Tied up in shallow water, neither vessel was fit for any kind of service.
Yet, young Lieut. Thomas Macdonough had his orders. He was to build a Navy- at least one ship, and three or four gunboats, or 15 gunboats, as he saw fit. Macdonough had been told: "The object is to leave no doubt of your commanding the lake and the waters connected, and that in due time."
The place he chose to build this fleet was at the Falls in Vergennes, VT. Situated some 7 miles upstream from the lake, Vergennes is Vermont's only inland port. It may at first seem a curious choice. Why not Burlington, Shelburne, Plattsburgh or Essex? All were established shipbuilding towns.
Macdonough chose Vergennes because the other towns were too exposed to attack. He knew the British were feverishly building their fleet just up the Richelieu at Isle Aux Noix. To build the fleet on the open lake was just too risky. Furthermore, Vergennes was a thriving industrial center in 1814. Situated as it was on the only navigable river in the state, the town boasted everything the young Naval officer needed- easy access to raw materials, eight forges, a blast furnace, rolling mill, wire factory, gristmill, sawmill and fulling mill.
Here at the base of the falls, the American Navy on Lake Champlain was built.
(Clicking on the thumbnails will take you to a full size photo.)
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