A Great Lake

By Davidson, Carla | American Heritage, September 2001 | Go to article overview
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A Great Lake

Davidson, Carla, American Heritage


IN FEBRUARY 1998, VERMONT'S senator Patrick Leahy attached few words to a bill pending in Congress: "The term `Great Lakes' includes Lake Champlain." With President Clinton's signature, Champlain became the sixth Great Lake--and eligible for federal research funds. Some representatives of the states alongside the other five bodies of water didn't like this one bit. SENATOR SNEAKS IN A SIXTH GREAT LAKE ran one newspaper headline, and Ohio's senator John Glenn spoke out: "I know the Great Lakes. I've traveled the Great Lakes. And Lake Champlain is not one of the Great Lakes." Barely a month later, the Senate voted to revoke the lake's new status, but a compromise allowed for grants to study the ecology of what no one denies is America's most historic body of water. Champlain was the site of an important offensive naval action by American forces in the Revolution and today holds the nation's foremost collection of underwater historic shipwrecks.

Lake Champlain flows north from Whitehall, New York, draining from Quebec's Richelieu River into the St. Lawrence. New York is on one side; Vermont, specifically what is known locally as Vermont's West Coast, is on the other. The region's biggest city is Burlington, Vermont, "the happening place in modern-day Vermont," according to one guidebook, and an excellent headquarters for exploring the lake and discovering its role as a highway of American history. "You can go anywhere in the world on Lake Champlain," boasts the captain of the Ethan Allen II, a 500-passenger excursion vessel based on Burlington's waterfront.

The lively waterfront itself is something to brag about. Its marina is filled with gently bobbing sailboats, and a beautifully landscaped promenade leads to miles of hiking and biking paths along the shoreline. Among several places to enjoy a bite to eat and a view of the rugged Adirondacks across the water is a Queen Anne-style floating boathouse.

Here is a model of how a city can open up its waters to its people, as many are trying to do these days. According to a plaque at the entrance, the lakeside park, only 10 years old, was created when Burlington bought derelict land long owned by the Vermont Central Railroad. This was the site of the city's first settlement, in 1790, a few houses huddled at the foot of Battery Street (then named Water) when everything else was still forest.

From the bounty of trees came the lumber and boatbuilding enterprises that shaped the Champlain Basin's early fortunes. By the 1860s, Burlington was the third-largest sawmill center in the nation, having received a boost with the

opening of the Champlain Canal in 1823 and, later, a rail system. When train service sputtered out in 1953, it left the waterfront something of a wasteland, punctuated by grain towers and fuel storage tanks. Rotting piers poked out into the water, and abandoned rail yards choked the shore.

On a sunny September morning, I could see that the old industrial buildings and the 1920s railroad station had been rehabbed to emerge as artists' studios, eating places, a fitness center, and most notably an excellent marine science center. All signs of decay had been scrubbed away, perhaps overly so. The last remaining grain tower came down a few weeks after my visit, provoking opposition from those who thought it should stand--even empty--as a reminder of Burlington's industrial past.

From the lakefront, Burlington climbs a hill. A 20-minute walk up College Street takes you past several handsome blocks of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century commercial buildings, the popular Church Street pedestrian mall, the small, verdant City Hall Park, and an abundance of intriguing restaurants, clubs, and shops. A stroll through Burlington reveals a very pleasing dinosaur: a small New England city with a thriving downtown. Much of this is supported by what stands at the top of the hill, the University of Vermont.

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