Sunday, March 19, 2017

Tugboat Shipwreck to Become Underwater Historic Preserve

Steam tug U.S. La ValleeThe 1880 tugboat U.S. La Vallee shipwreck in Lake Champlain will become a Underwater Historic Preserve and will open for divers this summer, thanks to a 2017 Corridor of Commerce Grant from the Champlain Valley National Heritage Partnership.

The Lake Champlain Maritime Museum (LCMM) plans to use the grant funds to establish the infrastructure that makes it possible for divers to safely visit the wreck site, as well as providing public interpretation of the wreck. The U.S. La Vallee is an example of the small, steam-powered commercial tugs that operated along the east coast and inland waterways of the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The tug’s overall excellent condition presents a unique opportunity for archaeologists to study small late-nineteenth-century steamboat construction, design and technology. U.S. La Vallee is one of few steamboat wrecks in Lake Champlain that still has an engine and other machinery on board.

The wreck of U.S. La Vallee was located in deep water in Shelburne Bay in July, 1996, during Lake Champlain Maritime Museum’s Sonar Survey of the lake. The vessel was sitting intact and upright on the bottom in excellent condition, except for the wheelhouse, whose curved windows appear to have been blown outward. Trapped air may have torn apart the vessel’s wheelhouse in a violent explosion during the vessel’s sinking.

Research, primarily conducted by historian A. Peter Barranco, Jr., revealed that the small wooden tugboat called Henry Lloyd, later renamed U.S. La Vallee, was launched in 1880 at Brooklyn, New York. In that era, hundreds of coal-fired screw steamers served as towing and service craft for coastal and inland shipping. After just three years of service in Brooklyn and in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, the tug was sold to a firm in Georgetown, South Carolina, where she remained for 37 years. During this time, the vessel was rebuilt and enlarged from 40.5 ft. to 56.1 ft. in length. In 1920, her license was surrendered at New York City as “dismantled, unfit for use.”

This was not the final chapter for Henry Lloyd, however: in 1923 the tug was listed in Albany, as “abandoned; district, hail and property changed, re-documented,” when she was acquired by John E. Matton, who operated a shipyard and fleet of tugboats based on the Hudson River in Cohoes. An earlier Matton shipyard in Waterford had primarily built canal boats; the new Matton yard served the NY Barge Canal system. Most of the tugs used on the New York canals were old vessels from the New York Harbor area that were cut down for canal use. Henry Lloyd’s original tall stack may have been cut down at this time. Matton also renamed the tug: Henry Lloyd became U.S. La Vallee, and remained in Matton’s service for six years.

In 1929, Burlington contractor James E. Cashman purchased U.S. La Vallee from Matton. This time the tug truly was worn out, and much effort was spent to keep the vessel afloat. A 1929 photograph of Shelburne Shipyard shows the tug on the marine railway. Captain Merritt Carpenter recalled that about that time, the men who operated her began to use the nickname “Useless Valley.” Finally, in 1931, Cashman abandoned efforts to stop the tug’s leaks, and had the tug towed out into deep water in Shelburne Bay and scuttled. U.S. La Vallee would not be seen again for sixty-five years.

For more information on the U.S. La Vallee, and a documentary video created by students at Vergennes Middle School, visit the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum’s website.

The Lake Champlain Underwater Historic Preserve System was established to provide public access for divers to some of the Lake’s historic shipwrecks. Access to the sites in the Lake Champlain Underwater Historic Preserve is free of charge, but divers must register annually prior to using the Preserve System. The system is designed to protect these irreplaceable historic resources both from anchor damage and artifact collecting. With the cooperation of the recreational diving community these wrecks will be available for generations of divers to enjoy.

Photo: U.S. La Vallee, courtesy Lake Champlain Maritime Museum.

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