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Guest Contributors...           Edwin R. Scollon

Diving Lake Champlain...
The Valcour Bay Research Project-IV   

What now?... Seeking assistance-
The Lake Champlain Maritime Museum

The Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, Basin Harbor Vermont. Photo by Jim Millard- Copyright © 2002 America's Historic Lakes


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Before Terry and I went back out to the lake that morning, a friend recommended calling the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum.  Several years before, Dan Carpenter had taken a diving certification course from LCMM’s current Director, Arthur Cohn. Dan thought that Art could offer some assistance.  We agreed that we could use some helpful advice and Dan made the call.

I didn’t know Art Cohn but I was familiar with the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum.  I had taken my family to the museum in the fall of 1998.  The LCMM conservators had just begun with the conservation of an anchor, recovered from Plattsburgh Bay that year.  The anchor was believed to have fallen from the British ship, Confiance, during the Battle of Plattsburgh in 1814.  Not only did we have the opportunity to view the anchor from the Lab’s lobby, we also had one of the staff offer us a personal tour of the lab.

Left and right: Key to Liberty exhibit at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. Click on the thumbnails to see a large image in a new window.

Philadelphia II

He pointed out several of the anchor’s markings and inscriptions, and explained the various conservation techniques they were employing to preserve them.  We also visited LCMM’s Key to Liberty exhibit, an interpretation of the struggle for the lake’s control during the Revolutionary War.  The exhibit contained a wealth of information about the Battle of Valcour Island and the American Fleet’s demise near Panton, Vermont.  We were also welcomed aboard the Philadelphia II, a full-scale replica of the original, American gunboat.  If anybody knew what we should do about the Valcour cannon, the staff at LCMM would.


Ernest Haas painting of the Philadelphia sinking on display at the Key to Liberty exhibit.

Art Cohn and I introduced ourselves during a cell phone conversation from Terry’s boat.  Once I explained what we had discovered, he suggested a course of action; one that I wouldn’t fully appreciate for time.  He would first contact New York State Education Department and U.S. Navy officials on our behalf.  He would then assist us in obtaining the required permits for an archeological study of the site.  Until then, we would have to suspend any further excavation of the cannon or the surrounding area.  When I began to protest he patiently explained that it wasn’t only a matter of archeological science, it was a matter of law.

It is not uncommon for divers to make archeological discoveries and remove them from their original settings.  Undoubtedly, some artifacts are removed by collectors as souvenirs.  But I believe that most are removed out of a sense of protecting them.  Underwater navigation is difficult and a diver may recover an artifact out of concerns of not being able to find it again.  Because underwater sites are also remote, a diver may make the recovery out of a fear of not being able to protect his discovery.  In either event, the diver makes the recovery out of his appreciation for the artifact’s value and because he feels his options for its protection are limited. 

Certainly, artifacts have value in what they are – objects of significant historical or cultural importance.  But an artifact’s value also lies in where it is.  As my friend and fellow VBRP member, Matt Booth, puts it:  “Each artifact is but another piece in an overall mosaic and has more value when viewed as a part of the whole picture than standing alone.  The sum is greater than all its parts.”  This holds especially true on a battle site.  Information and inferences can be obtained from an artifact’s position with related artifacts.  Once its position is lost, so is a large portion of its value.  The “overall mosaic” looses its definition.

During our phone conversation and later meetings, Art made me aware of a New York State Education Law statute that protects property of archeological or scientific value on state lands.  The statute, Education Law §233, also provides for the establishment of an archeological permit process.  The intent of the law is to not only to protect objects of historical or scientific importance, but also to protect  “the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge” that is derived from them.    Until we obtained an archeological permit from the New York State Department of Education and thoroughly mapped the site for later study, the cannon would have to remain where it was.

I could appreciate the importance of preserving the cannon’s full value and adhering to the law, but I was still concerned about the possibility of an unknowing diver tampering with it.  It was a concern that often bordered on panic. Fortunately, Valcour Bay is only three-quarters of a mile wide and several residences are located along its shores.  Art suggested that I enlist the help of friends and area residents.  Together, we formed a “community watch” of the site.

Art also set up a meeting with Mr. Philip Lord, Jr., Historical Survey Chief of New York State Museum’s Office of State History. The three of us met at LCMM.  Besides discussing the discovery and the archaeological permit application, we also discussed current area concerns.  Three significant battle sites are located in the short distance between Valcour and Plattsburgh Bays.  Two of these sites have been granted status as National Historic Landmarks on the National Register of Historic Places Inventory.    For an area rich with cultural and historical material, the lack of a formalized archeological management plan was a major concern.  Another was the diving community’s overall ignorance or disregard of the federal and state statutes that protect these sites.  Divers have collected numerous artifacts over the years and if state officials were notified of a discovery, it was often after the material had been removed.

Both Art and Mr. Lord saw an opportunity to address these concerns with this latest discovery.  We all agreed that the best way to educate divers of these concerns, the laws and the science was to have them intimately involved with the process.  The Valcour Bay Research Project was designed with that in mind and volunteer sport divers have played a significant role in protecting, studying and mapping the site.  They’ve become the backbone of the project and a major contributor to the project’s successes.  

In my excitement and out of a sense of taking responsibility for my actions, I’m certain that I would have arranged to have the cannon brought to the surface.  But if I would have removed the cannon before funds were obtained for its conservation and the site was adequately mapped, I would have been responsible for more harm than good.  Now that I have the benefit of hindsight and a firsthand view of the VBRP’s successes, I realize that the formations of the VBRP and its long-term goals were the better alternative.

How we see a problem is often at the root of the problem itself.  Once I saw the cannon’s value for contributing to our knowledge of the Battle of Valcour, I was able to focus on what was most important – mapping the site.  As you’ll see in later additions to The Valcour Bay Research Project on the Web and from our mapping, we’ve been able to trace the movements of a specific vessel within the American Fleet.  Who knows what else we’ll discover as the mapping continues?  

Thanks to the involvement of the divers, Mr. Lord, LCMM and the introduction of an emerging management approach (Submerged Cultural Resource Management), the cannon’s value may reach its full historical and educational potential. From this collaborative effort, historical links have been developed to the cannon itself.  I hope you’ll take a look in subsequent pages to The Valcour Bay Research Project on the Web and on links to Lake Champlain Maritime Museum’s website.  I think you’ll agree that it’s some mosaic.

For more information on Education Law § 233 and archeological permits on state lands, click on: 

Continued here: The Cannon is broken!

Back to the VBRP HOME PAGE

Other links about Valcour Island and the Battle of Valcour within
The Lake Champlain and Lake George Historical Site

The Battle of Lake Champlain:
The American Revolution on Lake Champlain

Download a copy of The Lake Champlain Maritime Museum's Official VBRP Cannon Raising Commemoration Program- Click HERE.

Also of interest: LCMM's Valcour Island Battlefield Preservation


IMPORTANT NOTE: Artifacts on the bottom of the lake are the property of the People of the States of New York and/or Vermont by law. It is illegal to remove or damage them under State Law(s) without the appropriate clearances and permits. Removing them and transferring them across state lines violates Federal law & makes one liable to Federal prosecution.

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