Burlington, Vermont
Early 20th-century Postcard Views

HP 206 Researching Historic Structures & Sites • 2012
Historic Preservation ProgramUniversity of Vermont

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Canal sloops from Quebec at the Shepard and Morse Lumber Company docks, looking south from the College Street dock, about 1900. The waterfront lumber companies are gone now; please see October 2012 photo below. (Courtesy of Special Collections, Bailey/Howe Library, University of Vermont)

Sailing Canal Boats in Burlington Harbor

The postcard called “Dock Scene, Burlington, Vt.” was lithographed from a hand-colored photograph, taken in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. (1) The photographer was facing south at the end of Central Wharf at the foot of College Street, or was on a boat slightly offshore, in Lake Champlain.

The back of the card is not postmarked. The inscription along the left edge reads, “The Hugh C. Leighton Co., Manufacturers, Portland, Me., U.S.A. Made In Germany. No. 20008.” The stamp required is “one cent for the United States and Island possessions Cuba, Canada, and Mexico. Two cents for foreign.” (2) Since the card was printed in Germany, it must have been imported before World War I began in Europe in 1914. The positions of the lumber company sheds behind the boats in the photograph seem to conform most closely to the 1894 and 1900 Sanborn maps. (3) (4)

Three sailing canal boats were made fast to a dock or wharf, which was part of the sprawling Shepard and Morse Lumber Company. (5) On the right in the background is the end of the Champlain Transportation Company steamboat wharf with frame buildings containing a freight house, office, and waiting room, (6) and beyond that, another frame building, either the Elias Lyman and Company coal storehouse (1894) (7) or the Spaulding, Kimball and Company Wholesale Grocers storehouse (1900) (8) on another wharf, west of the foot of Maple Street. The shore at the southern end of Burlington appears in the distance on the right, with the Rutland Railroad track barely visible along the shore.

In October 2012 the scene from the same viewpoint was very different. Boat slips at the Burlington Community Boathouse, formerly the site of the Lake Champlain Yacht Club, were in the foreground. Two people sat on other boat slips that extend into the harbor from the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center. Hoehl Park next to the ECHO Center occupied the general location of a pier used by the Shepard and Morse Lumber Company a century ago. (9) A former Shepard and Morse dock that used to be covered with lumber had become part of the Lake Champlain Transportation Company, with a barge and a ferry called the Vermont tied to it. Though most waterfront activities have changed since 1900, there are still reminders of the past in the shapes of the buildings and wharfs.

It is possible to identify the sailing vessels in the postcard as canal boats because their hulls are similar to that of the Lois McClure, a replica of a typical 1862-era canal schooner with two masts, its design based mostly on two wrecks in Burlington Harbor. (10) The boats in this photo were canal sloops, rigged with one mast. When sails were first added to canal boats, in the early nineteenth century, they were more likely to be sloops. As time went by, these boats evolved, becoming longer, less curved and more rectangular. Many were designed with multiple-mast schooner rigs. (11)

Families lived and worked on canal sloops and schooners. In this postcard, a woman in an apron stands on the port side of the W. B., approximately amidships, facing a man sitting in the stern, who looks over his shoulder toward the photographer. A man or boy is working on the starboard side, silhouetted against a sail. (12)

The sight of sailing canal boats had been much more common decades before this photo was taken. By 1900, there were few left, according to a dissertation on the subject. (13) These boats were considered “old timers.” (14)

Sailing canal boats were developed after the Champlain Canal opened in 1823, joining Lake Champlain and the Hudson River, between Whitehall, New York on the southern end of the lake and Fort Edward on the Hudson. It had been routine to ship freight by sailing vessel on the lake, and then transfer it to towed canal barges, or vice versa. Sailing canal boats could navigate both lakes and canals, and eliminated the expensive and time-wasting step of unloading cargo from wind-powered freight carriers and loading it onto barges. When this new type of sailing vessel reached a canal, its rigging could be temporarily dismantled and its centerboard pulled up. The dimensions and shape of sailing canal boats' hulls were of course determined by the waterways they had to fit into, and by the type and amount of freight they would haul. (15) They were very different in appearance from, and much less graceful than, traditional sailing craft.

William W. Higbee, an older resident of Charlotte, Vermont, described the role of sailing canal boats in a valuable history of Charlotte's McNeil Cove ferry landing, published by the Burlington Weekly Free Press as a letter to the editor in October 1903. The charter for the ferry to Essex, New York was granted in 1821, he wrote, and in the 1830s and '40s, the landing was a busy stop for steamboats running north and south between Whitehall, New York and Saint Jean on the Richelieu River in Quebec, as well as a horse-powered ferry that crossed the lake, east and west. In addition, “a fleet of sloop rigged canal boats were constantly going and coming, loaded with all kinds of commodities.” (16)

“They would sail up the lake to Whitehall where 'Billey Kane, the rigger,' as he was called, would take down the mast and sails so the boats could go through the Champlain Canal to Troy, and from there by tug boats to New York or elsewhere,” Higbee wrote. “On the return trip, Kane would replace mast and sails and the voyage northward would be resumed. There was then little or no 'towing' on Lake Champlain. Each boat went alone, and a strong south wind was pretty sure to bring a dozen to twenty white-winged freights around the headland of Split Rock.” (17)

Early canal boats carried wheat and potash, he said. Later the cargo was “heavy merchandise, salt, sugar, molasses, now and then, possibly a quart bottle of 'Old Holland,' besides dry goods and notions...” Along with an inn and a tavern onshore, there was a storehouse and a wholesale and retail store on the wharf. Canal boats not only dropped off some products there, but picked up others, and “frequently tied up at the dock for days, loading produce.” (18)

“The present small inlet a little east of the wharf was deep enough and free from obstructions, so that Capt. Caleb E. Barton, who ran a canal boat on the lake, frequently wintered his boat there,” he remembered. (19)

Higbee recalled what he had been told about the changeover to sailing canal boats after the Champlain Canal opened. “For a long time there was more or less trans-shipment of produce at Whitehall, regular canal boats not being built to stand the lake winds and waves, but dealers in butter and cheese, particularly, protested against the damage to goods by over-handling and delay, and in 1841 the 'Merchant's Line' was established, using boats built for both lake and canal, and so rigged that the masts and sails could be removed and replaced in Whitehall... ” (20)

The export of butter and cheese increased from Charlotte and other towns on the east side of the lake, most of it shipped from the McNeil ferry landing, according to Higbee. “During the best days of this line as high as 40 boats were thus employed,” he said. (21)

The two boats pointed south in this photo are rafted together, and are both clearly from the Canadian Province of Quebec, with home ports on the Saint Lawrence River. The one on the left is called D. Gill, and is from Sorel. The other is W. B., out of Montreal. The third boat is tied along the north side of the dock and facing east. It is not possible to read a name on her stern. The stacks of lumber on the dock suggest that the Canadians have unloaded their cargo and are waiting to load up with exports for the return trip to Canada.

By the time this photo was taken, the lumber supply from Vermont forests, which had been so important to Burlington's economic development, had already been drained. American markets were relying on lumber from Canada. “It is perfectly evident from the statistics that our general lumber supply and our supply of spruce wood for papermaking are being rapidly exhausted,” said President William Howard Taft, speaking on the need for a Canadian reciprocity bill. (22) The Burlington Weekly Free Press reported that the president “pointed out, too, that the preservation of our forests required the opening up of the Canadian supply.” (23)

The lumber trade was seasonal. Generally by late November it was almost over, according to a 1908 report in the Weekly Free Press. There had been more than 80 boatloads from Canada so far that year: 43 from sail barges, 25 from canal boats, and 14 from barges. Several more loads of lumber were due before the port closed for the winter. A drought had lowered the water level in the Richelieu River, making it impassable for awhile. Despite that, lumber imports had been more than average. The year before was even busier, with 148 boatloads arriving from Canada. (24)

Adding removable rigging and sails to vessels that had been completely dependent on towing created more efficient transportation. But these combined tow and sail boats had their limitations, as a 1911 story in the Weekly Free Press illustrates. Canal boats carrying lumber and hay had run aground north of Colchester Reef. The lake was too shallow there for the boats to be pulled off the reef by tugboats. Most of the hay was wet. The only way of saving the lumber and what was left of the hay would be to shift it onto other canal boats. Once the loads were removed, some of the stranded boats, riding higher in the water, might make it to Burlington Harbor. (25)

Though they had been a nautical innovation on Lake Champlain decades earlier, these vessels were well past their golden age when this postcard photo was taken. Cargo could be moved faster and more easily by steam-powered railways, ships, and even steam towboats. Some sailing canal boats were converted to towed boats. By the late nineteenth century, the ones that were still sailing craft were more apt to be owned by individuals. They hauled “low-paying bulk cargoes like stone, lumber, gravel, bricks, or coal,” where there was a shortage of towed canal boats, or in isolated waterways that steamers didn't reach. (26)

Barbara R. Bosworth

(Photo by Barbara R. Bosworth)


(1) Postcard, Burlington Harbor, Burlington Postcard Files, Special Collections, Bailey/Howe Library, University of Vermont.

(2) Ibid.

(3) “Burlington, Chittenden County, Vermont,” (New York: Sanborn-Perris Map Co., 1894, map 20).

(4)  “Burlington, Chittenden County, Vermont,” (New York: Sanborn-Perris Map Co., 1900, map 19).

(5) Ibid.

(6) 1900 Sanborn map 24.

(7) 1894 Sanborn map 20.

(8) 1900 Sanborn map 24.

(9) 1900 Sanborn map 19.

(10) “Our Fleet: Schooner Lois McClure,” Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, http://www.lcmm.org/our_fleet/lois_mcclure.htm, (accessed October 2012).

(11) “Shipwrecks of Lake Champlain: Shoreham Sloop,” Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, http://www.lcmm.org/shipwrecks_history/shipwrecks/sloop_shoreham.htm (accessed October 2012).

(12) Postcard,  Burlington Harbor, Burlington Postcard Files, Special Collections, Bailey/Howe Library, University of Vermont.

(13) Joseph Robert Cozzi, “The Lake Champlain Sailing Canal Boat,” Doctoral dissertation, Anthropology, Texas A & M University, August 2000, 2.

(14) “Our Fleet: Schooner Lois McClure,” Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, http://www.lcmm.org/our_fleet/lois_mcclure.htm (accessed October 2012).

(15) Cozzi, 2.

(16) William W. Higbee, “M'Neil's Ferry; Past and Present,” Burlington Weekly Free Press, October 22, 1903, 10.

(17) Ibid.

(18) Ibid.

(19) Ibid.

(20) Ibid.

(21) Ibid.

(22) “Taft Names His Principal Backer, Relies on Public Opinion to Force Reciprocity Agreement Through the Senate,” Burlington Weekly Free Press, June 8, 1911, 13.

(23) Ibid.

(24) “Season Nearly Over, Eighty-Four Boat loads of Lumber Received in Burlington This Year,” Burlington Weekly Free Press, November 26, 1908, 7.

(25) “Boats in Bad Shape, With Cargoes of Hay and Lumber They Are at Bottom of Lake,” Burlington Weekly Free Press, November 16, 1911, 5.

(26) Cozzi, 82