B y Dan King

One of Skeneborough Museum’s most popular attractions, damaged under a leaking roof, will be getting fixed in the spring.

The diorama, which tells the story of Philip Skene and the birth of Skenesborough and the U.S. Navy, shows the layout of the original Skenesborough settlement between Skene Mountain and West Mountain.

Damage to the diorama occurred last winter because of a roof leak, but come spring it’ll be better than ever, officials said.

Built in 1957 by a Navy veteran, Capt. Edward Farmer, the diorama has long been one of the more popular exhibits in the museum, said Carol Greenough, the museum’s director.

The incredibly detailed diorama has a foundation made predominately of sawdust, so when the roof began to leak, the foundation weakened.

“It wasn’t a total rain storm on it, but dripped white from the ceiling,” Greenough said. “The foundation, when it dried, lifted and cracked, some of the white then dripped across the water of the diorama as well. It was very unpleasant.”

When the damage was discovered last spring, Greenough was nervous.

“I really didn’t know what to do. There are not a lot of professionals who know how to do this kind of work,” she said. “It took a lot of phone calls. I called all kinds of people.”

Eventually, Greenough found a woman who works for a company that makes hand-crafted model trains. The woman came and examined the damage and decided that when she had a lull in her work schedule next spring, she would begin the repair.

“I was scared to death that she would say ‘I haven’t got the time to do this’,” Greenough said, adding that it took weeks just to find someone who was interested in even considering the project.

Greenough said that a contract had yet to be finalized, but that it would be an “unbelievably reasonable” price.

The diorama was place in the current wing in 1990 and at that time sound was added to go along with the story that the diorama tells. Greenough said that the sound has long been a problem and that the company that put it in has since gone out of business, but luckily she was contacted by a worker from historic preservation who is interested in fixing the sound for the diorama as well.

“We feel this is a valuable part of the museum and don’t intend to lose it,” Greenough said. “It helps tell the story that we tell vocally. Hopefully we get more locals in when it’s done.”

Greenough and Jim Aiken will eventually present that proposal to the Whitehall Historical Society Board.

The story it tells

In only three minutes, the detailed diorama tells a fascinating story.

“It tells the story of Philip Skene making a development and it goes along with a lot of pictures and artifacts we have,” Greenough said.

The diorama depicts what Skenesborough looked like when it was first settled, including the schooner ship “Katherine,” which would become the impetus of Whitehall being considered “The Birthplace of the U.S. Navy.”

“Skene used his own ships to export his goods,” Greenough said. “It was called the ‘Katherine’ and the Americans renamed it to the ‘Liberty.’ When the Americans came in spring 1775, they did capture the area and the ship and went north on the lake, met Benedict Arnold in Ticonderoga and outfitted it as a ship of war.”

The American taking of the ship is described by former Whitehall Historian Doris Begor Morton as “the first aggressive action in New York State, May 9, 1775. By May 15 she had been armed and on May 18 had captured the British war vessel, sloop Enterprise.”

Taking the ship also led to much of Skene’s family becoming prisoners.

“On May 11 Eleazar Oswald and Marine Captain Jonathan Brown took command of Philip Skene’s schooner Katherine in Skenesborough Harbor under Colonel Benedict Arnold’s orders,” read a publication by Morton, titled ‘Birth of the United States Navy.’ “They took Herrick’s thirty men, their own fifty recruits and the Skene family with John Brooks on board and sailed down the Narrows to Fort Ticonderoga. Here the Skene family and British officers from the Fort were sent to Hartford, Connecticut, as prisoners. Later the Skene women were returned and sent to Canada.”

Morton goes on to say: “The history of the origin of the United States Navy covers events in two years, 1775 and 1776.”
Skene, according to a biography, also by Morton, settled the area because of the power supplied by water falls, which allowed him to establish saw mills, grist mills et al, which also are included in the diorama.

Morton’s book describes the settlement: “A manor? A colony? A plantation? All these pretentious names have been applied to Philp Skene’s settlement at the head of Lake Champlain.”

The diorama explains the different ships and buildings in the original Skenesborough settlement and a spotlight illuminates each one as the three-minute presentation takes place.

Greenough hopes to have the renovated diorama back up and running for next summer.

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