Then Again: The 64-mile Champlain Canal abruptly reoriented Vermont’s economy

Canal sloops sit on the docks of Shepard and Morse Lumber Co. in Burlington, circa 1900. Silver Special Collections Library, University of Vermont

For almost two centuries, the people who lived in western Vermont saw their future, or at least their happiness, in the north in Canada. But in the 1820s, events conspired to do what patriotism and law could not do – to firmly ally Vermont with the rest of the United States.

The initial lure of the north was perhaps inevitable. It started with the French, the first Europeans to visit, occupy, and eventually settle Vermont. Unlike the Native Americans who originally peopled Vermont, the French had loyalties that led them almost entirely north to Canada, which was colonized by their compatriots. In contrast, Native Americans had multi-directional trade.

When the British followed the French, their settlers also tended to look north. The reason was the geography of trade. Western Vermont was isolated from the more populous regions in the south. In contrast, Eastern Vermont was linked to Boston and New York by the Connecticut River.

Only the most perishable goods from western Vermont could survive transport over rough roads and downriver to markets in New York and Massachusetts, and then only with great effort. Moving goods north on Lake Champlain to the Canadian market was much easier and more profitable.

Merchants still had to find a way around the rapids of the Richelieu River, where they had the choice of hauling goods or using wooden rafts to navigate the rapids. The goods transported north – including huge amounts of timber and surplus livestock and produce – were sold in St. Jean, Montreal and Quebec City. When they returned south, merchants brought back items that were otherwise hard to find in western Vermont, such as manufactured goods, glass, paint, wine, and salt.

During the American Revolution, prominent Vermonters, including Ethan and Ira Allen and Thomas Chittenden, secretly negotiated Vermont’s alliance with British-controlled Canada. From a business point of view, joining Canada would have made sense.

The Vermonters made a similar calculation in advance of the 1812 war. When President Thomas Jefferson ordered a boycott of trade with Britain, Vermonters largely ignored it. Refusing to trade with the enemy would have put up with economic devastation. Instead, Vermonters, especially those in the northwest corner of the state, continued to trade with Canada. They had little choice.

But in 1823 the flow of goods from Vermont to Canada suddenly slowed to a trickle. The momentous change began on October 8 of this year. On that day, the Gleaner of St. Albans was the first ship to enter the newly built 64-mile-long Champlain Canal with a cargo of wheat and potash, which connected Lake Champlain to the Hudson River and thus to the New York City Market.

The Gleaner was specially developed for this task. Its owners, Julius Hoyt and Nehemiah Kingman, designed the width of the boat to fit the new canal through which horses or mules would pull it. But the owners also added a sail so that the Gleaner could also sail on Lake Champlain between her home port in St. Albans and the canal.

The Gleaner’s maiden voyage had significant delays. The canal was so new that the boat had to wait in Waterford, New York for the final lock to be completed.

People understood that this first passage was a momentous event. Hoyt and Kingman came with them, and a flotilla of festively decorated boats followed in the wake of the gleaner. When the convoy reached Troy, New York, a band was playing while a procession led the owners to a public dinner to commemorate the opening of the canal.

Similar festivities greeted the Gleaner in Albany, Poughkeepsie, and finally New York City, where cannon volleys, marching bands and celebratory dinners marked his arrival. A poet even wrote a song on the occasion that honored the gleaner as the “barque of the mountains”.

The design of the Gleaner garnered rave reviews. New York City’s Mercantile Advertiser stated that “the ship was built as an experiment and has all of its intended uses. She sails just as fast and tolerates the weather changes in the lake and river as well as normal sloops and is suitable for passage through the canal. “

A new class of cargo ships, or “canal schooners”, suddenly appeared on Lake Champlain. Like the Gleaner, these sailboats were built to fit snugly into the canal to maximize their cargo capacity. Within five years of the canal’s opening, the number of cargo ships on the lake has quintupled to around 200.

New York State paid the bill to build the canal and then levied tolls to get the money back. Vermonters might have noticed the irony that their material lives were improved by one of their greatest adversaries. For decades, the New York government had made an intense and ultimately failed attempt to take control of Vermont.

But New York was hardly altruistic. The canal would benefit the New Yorkers as well as the Vermonters.

The effect of the canal was almost instantaneous. Vermont’s timber industry was a major beneficiary. By late 1824, New York State reported that 22 million feet of sawn timber, 665,108 cubic feet of cut timber, and 514,407 cubic feet of round timber had passed south through the canal. In response to the huge demand for lumber, Vermonters built numerous sawmills along the Champlain Valley.

In this photo, taken around 1875, piles of wood are crowding the Burlington waterfront. Wood was a major export product from Vermont in the 19th century. Silver Special Collections Library, University of Vermont

Traders often had the lumber assembled into huge rafts about 300 meters long that were towed through the canals. The rafts proved difficult to steer, often crashing against the banks of the canal, causing significant damage. To cover the cost of canal repairs and discourage those giant timber rafts, New York levied double the toll that would have been levied if the same timber had been transported by boat.

In addition to sawn timber, large quantities of agricultural and other products migrated south. At the end of the canal’s first full year of operation, 111 tons of butter and cheese, 41 tons of whiskey, 24 tons of cornmeal and 21 tons of beans and peas had been shipped south. Traders built warehouses and docks along the lakeshore to cope with the rapidly growing trade.

Canadian officials recognized the economic threat posed by the Champlain Canal. They responded by building the Chambly Canal to bypass the Richelieu rapids, but construction wasn’t completed until 1843.

The delay has cost the Canadian economy dearly. In the two decades that the Champlain Canal had no competition for maritime traffic, Vermonters forged strong ties with the rest of the American market that the Canal had opened up to them.

And since then the country’s economy has been concentrated almost exclusively in the south.

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