Recent acts of piracy on the high seas brought to mind stories of what some call “the Golden Age of Pirates” (like Blackbeard, or Henry Morgan). That conjured images of sunken treasure, which in turn reminded me of what might well be the shallowest sunken treasure ever recovered. And wouldn’t you know it? It happened right here in the North Country.
It occurred at the southern tip of Lake Champlain, near Whitehall, already the site of many historic lake-related treasures. Arnold’s Valcour fleet was built there, and it’s also the final resting place of the ships that survived the Battle of Plattsburgh. Most of them eventually sank in East Bay, which is a vast marshy area surrounding the mouth of the Poultney River.
If you’ve never toured the lower part of Lake Champlain, you’re missing a great experience. Besides playing a critical role during centuries of regional history, the scenery is spectacular. South of Ticonderoga, the lake narrows into a 20-mile, river-like channel previously referred to as Wood Creek. It features cliffs, narrows, lush vegetation, and copious wildlife.
Just outside of Whitehall is South Bay, bound in places by high, steep, cliffs that once hosted a historic battle. It also hosts a healthy population of rattlesnakes. The long, high ridge to the west, from here to Ticonderoga, separates South Bay from Lake George. Of all the canoe trips I’ve taken, South Bay is one of the all-time best.
A little further east down the lake is a sharp bend known simply as the Elbow, a shortened form of Fiddler’s Elbow. It was here that a famed member of Roger’s Rangers, General Israel Putnam, led an attack against Marin’s forces in 1758. To the east, just past the Elbow, is the entrance to East Bay, less than a mile from downtown Whitehall, where Lock 12 provides access to the New York State Barge Canal. Like I said, this place is extremely rich in history.
The story of sunken treasure is tied to the possession of Fort Ticonderoga, about twenty miles north. In early July, 1777, General Arthur St. Clair was the US commander at Ticonderoga, but the American troops were far outmanned and outgunned by the forces of Sir Johnny Burgoyne, whose great show of strength prompted St. Clair’s decision to evacuate the fort.
Some of St. Clair’s men crossed Lake Champlain and retreated across Vermont territory. Others went south on the lake to Whitehall. Burgoyne pursued the latter group, taking control of Whitehall (known then as Skenesborough). As the patriots fled, they destroyed many boats and just about anything they couldn’t carry, lest it fall into enemy hands.
Burgoyne’s forces were involved in other battles before finally meeting defeat at Saratoga, but it’s his time at Whitehall that is a vital link to the treasure story. His men at Fort Ticonderoga and elsewhere frequently suffered the same problems as the Americans—exhaustion, hunger, and lack of pay. Many unpaid soldiers voiced their discontent, and mutiny could soon follow.
To alleviate the problem, British authorities in Quebec dispatched a sloop. Manned by a crew of ten, it carried sufficient gold to pay Burgoyne’s thousands of soldiers. After the long trip down Lake Champlain, the sloop reached Fort Ticonderoga, only to find that Burgoyne had traveled farther south. Captain Johnson (first name unknown), in charge of the gold-laden craft, decided to deliver his goods to Burgoyne at Whitehall.
Nearing the village, Johnson was informed that Burgoyne’s men had been victorious at Hubbardton, about 15 miles northeast of Whitehall. East Bay led directly towards Hubbardton, and about 8 miles upstream was a bridge the soldiers would cross as they made their way towards Albany. Johnson entered the bay, planning to intercept the troops at the bridge and give them the gold.
The sloop traveled as far as possible, anchoring just below Carver Falls, not far from the bridge. While waiting for Burgoyne’s men, the sloop came under attack by patriot forces, (possibly men retreating from the loss at Hubbardton). Captain Johnson scuttled his ship, but the men were killed trying to escape, and the Americans quickly left the area that would soon be crawling with British soldiers. The sloop lay on the river bottom.
Years later, it was learned that England’s military had offered a reward for the capture of Captain Johnson, for it was assumed he had made off with the booty, it having never been delivered.
Fast-forward 124 years to fall, 1901. Civil Engineer George B. West, who oversaw construction of the power dam at Carver Falls, learned that raging spring torrents had left part of a watercraft exposed in the riverbed below the falls. Aided by a crew of 30 men, he diverted the river temporarily to further explore the wreck and clear it from the channel. Using tools, and then a charge of dynamite, they managed to free the hull. Inside, they found various glass items, several muskets, and an interesting iron chest in the captain’s quarters.
Imagine the excitement of the moment, opening the lid to reveal 10,000 gold sovereigns, coins that today might fetch between $5 and $10 million!
As the spoils of a long-ago war, the coins were deposited in the Allen National Bank in nearby Fair Haven, Vermont. But ownership of the money was questioned by the New York Times, Boston newspapers, and many others across New England. Some said it should be returned to Great Britain as a gesture of good faith. Others said to keep it. After all, if the soldiers had recovered the gold when the boat sank, it surely wouldn’t have been returned to the Brits.
But it wasn’t that simple. The boat sank in 1777. Previous to that, the battle between New York and New Hampshire over land grants had led to the creation of the Republic of Vermont, located between the two litigants. Neither New York nor New Hampshire recognized Vermont independence, which led to an interesting scenario: in 1777, the site at Carver Falls could have been part of New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, or British territory.
Further complicating matters, when statehood was finally settled (and before the gold was discovered), the NYS-Vermont border in that area was placed right down the center of the Poultney River. In the end, it is believed the money remained in Vermont coffers.
There is an interesting side story that was not included in published accounts about the recovered gold. It helps explain how the boat went undetected for more than a century. Above Carver Falls, seven years after the sloop sank, the river’s path was diverted, whether by natural means, man-made means, or a combination of the two. A supposed dispute over water rights may have played a role, or the river may have naturally chosen a new course through a widespread sandy area.
What’s most important is the result of the change in path. Up to 1783, East Bay was navigable by ships weighing up to 40 tons. The course diversion caused massive amounts of sand and sediment to wash over the falls, reducing the channel’s depth dramatically.
In subsequent years, though rumors of sunken treasure persisted, it hardly seemed plausible that a boat of any size could have made the journey to Carver Falls. Who could have known the river was once much deeper? It wasn’t until 124 years later that nature released a torrent strong enough to reveal the truth. And to clear the long-sullied name of Captain Johnson.
Photos: Top, map of key locations; below, sample of a British gold sovereign from the late 1700s.
Lawrence Gooley has authored nine books and many articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. He took over in 2010 and began expanding the company’s publishing services. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.