VERGENNES, Vt. — Two centuries ago, the land around the falls of the Otter Creek – in what is now the city of Vergennes – was a beehive of activity as thousands of shipwrights from New York and elsewhere spent the winter building a U.S. Navy fleet. Those vessels would later meet the British on Lake Champlain in the pivotal Battle of Plattsburgh during the War of 1812.
Through the winter of 1813-1814, that fleet was built in yards along the river, seven miles upstream from the Lake Champlain and just below the falls that helped power the Monkton Iron Works, which provided the metal fittings used to build the 26-gun USS Saratoga, the 20-gun Eagle, 14-gun Ticonderoga and a number of smaller gunboats that later sailed to meet a larger British force in the battle, which ended on Sept. 11, 1814.
“It was profound in its impact,” said Art Cohn, the co-founder of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. “And it was shocking in its impact because nobody believed that the British could be turned back.”
In late summer 1814, a land force under British Gen. Sir George Prevost and the naval force under Capt. George Downie converged on Plattsburgh. The outnumbered American fleet, commanded by Cmdr. Thomas Macdonough, defeated the British off Cumberland Head, causing Prevost to pull his forces back into Canada.
Some argue the U.S. victory at Plattsburgh is what led to the negotiated peace that ended the war.
To commemorate that victory, historians with the Maritime Museum are planning to embark next summer on their “1814: From War to Peace” tour, with their floating museum, the Lois McClure, a replica of a 19th-century lake freighter.
“My idea is to travel for three months to the central places that have a direct connection with this important story, which is the Richelieu Valley, Lake Champlain, and the Hudson River to New York City to share this story of American and world history,” Cohn said. “It just so happens that it’s our story.”
The museum also plans to do other exhibits that could be shown at museums or other locations across the region and beyond.
Nothing remains of the Vergennes shipyards, but Vermont artist Ernie Haas has painted a scene of what that shipyard might have looked like when the fleet was being built. The painting is going to be used by the museum, based in nearby Ferrisburgh, as part of its summer of events.
The original will hang at the museum, but reproductions will travel with the Lois McClure.
In addition to the summer-long tour of the Lois McClure, the Battle of Plattsburgh Association is commissioning a mural of the battle that is scheduled to be ready by Sept. 11, the actual bicentennial of the battle.
Sometimes referred to as America’s second war of independence, the War of 1812 broke out over British impressment of American sailors and other issues. Land and sea battles raged across the world with naval battles on the high seas as well as on the American lakes, especially Lakes Erie and Champlain.
It was a war of great American defeats, such as when a British force burned Washington, and great victories, such as the unsuccessful British attack on Baltimore that led Francis Scott Key to write the poem that became “The Star-Spangled Banner.”