An expert on the preservation of maritime archaeology is trying to drum up interest for the construction of a structure that would house and display one of Whitehall’s most enduring and significant historical artifacts.
Arthur Cohn, executive director of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum and director of its Maritime Research Institute, would like to see the hull of the U.S.S. Ticonderoga, which was part of the American fleet during the Battle of Plattsburgh in 1814, be stored in an enclosed, climate-controlled building with interpretative displays telling the ship’s story.
“A rudimentary building with temperature control would relieve the seasonal and daily fluctuations in humidity and temperature,” Cohn said.
But Carol Greenough, director of the Skenesborough Museum, where the ship is presently stored, said the organization simply can’t afford such a project.
“There’s no one in Whitehall who has those kinds of funds,” Greenough said.
It’s unclear how much a building would cost and New York State presently does not have any plans to preserve the ship but matching funds may be available. Even with the possibility of matching funds, the project would likely require hundreds of thousand of dollars in start-up money.
“No one has mentioned upkeep. How much are the operating costs,” Greenough said.
Cohn, who has worked with Greenough in the past and used the Ticonderoga as a teaching tool, said he isn’t suggesting Whitehall write off the responsibility of constructing a building itself, but would like to see a collaborative effort including major stakeholders.
“I saw the War of 1812 Bicentennial as an opportunity to generate some excitement and interest and a mutual opportunity to preserve the ship wreck,” Cohn said. “This is an object and story that has a very rich connection to an important part of United States, British and Canadian history.”
Cohn suggested the idea to a naval officer as a potential legacy project that would be spearheaded by the Navy, but said the idea didn’t generate much traction.
Although Whitehall is one of several communities that bills itself as the birthplace of the U.S. Navy, naval officials don’t recognize any community as its official birthplace and any “naval” operations that occurred in Whitehall during the American Revolution occurred under the authority of the Continental Army and not the Continental Navy, which was formed on Oct. 13, 1775.
The idea has generated some buzz, appearing in several national newspapers. Greenough has even received a pair of overtures from people who have expressed a desire to donate money toward the project but the historical society isn’t even sure if it’s legal to accept money.
Greenough said the organization is going to discuss the idea and develop a “uniform response” if they continue to receive interest from people wishing to make a donation.
The U.S.S. Ticonderoga was originally built as a steamer in Vergennes, Vermont, but was purchased by the Navy, converted into a 120-foot, 17-gun schooner, and was launched in May of 1814.
On Sept. 11, 1814, the Ticonderoga was part of the American fleet that defeated the British during the Battle of Plattsburgh. During the battle, the Ticonderoga assisted in the capture of two British ships.
After the war, the Ticonderoga and most of the naval fleet on Lake Champlain were laid up in Whitehall. In 1825, the ship was deemed unworthy of repair and sold. The ship eventually sank into East Bay.
In 1958, the ship was recovered by a local historical group and put on display near the confluence of the Champlain Canal and Lake Champlain.
“It was recovered for all the right reasons. The community wanted to get closer to that history; it wasn’t an easy project and they worked very hard. But it was done before we knew all the implications of bringing a ship wreck into an open air environment,” Cohn said. “It’s not how we would do it today.”
When wood is submerged, it becomes porous and filled with water. As long as the wood remains wet, it retains its shape, but when it dries the wood shrinks and can become misshapen. Fluctuations in weather can also be detrimental to preservation process.
The boat is currently covered by a tin roof and a fence which Greenough said were erected to keep weather and people off the wreck.
Despite its exposure, Cohn said the Ticonderoga has actually held up surprisingly well.
“It’s in better shape than I would have thought. If you had said the ship came out of the water 50 to 60 years ago and was put into an open air environment I would have expected it to be in worse shape.”
But how long the ship can last exposed to the elements is unknown.
“It’s about looking forward into the future and doing justice to the artifact. The question is, looking another 50 years into the future, what kind of shape it will be in, and will it still be there,” Cohn said.