Lake Champlain covers more than 500 square miles, reaches 400 feet at its greatest depth, and is the home of over 300 shipwrecks. Some of the wrecks date back to the Revolutionary War, while others were sunk or scuttled as recently as the 1960s. The Lake Champlain Maritime Museum has a great overview of the wrecks that lay within lake. The wrecks lie in depths that range from 12ft to 100ft making it an ideal location for all experience levels. Some fan favorites include the OJ Walker, General Butler, Horse Powered Ferry, and the Coal Barge.
The bottom composition of the lake is fine silt. Poor buoyancy control has the potential to create very low visibility situations. Proper buoyancy techniques allow everyone to enjoy the wrecks. The lake has a thermocline – even in the summer, thicker exposure suits are required. Each wreck is marked with a buoy – one charter is allowed to tie up on each marker at a time. From there, divers simply follow the line down directly to the wrecks. At the end up the dive, simply follow the line back to your boat.
Vessel Type: Schooner-rigged Sailing Canal Boat (wooden)
Experience Level: Intermediate-Experienced
The O.J. Walker was named after Obadiah Johnson Walker and was built right in Burlington, Vermont in 1862. It served as a transport vessel between New York and Burlington for 33 years. During a severe windstorm on May 11, 1895, the O.J. Walker began taking on water. The crew were able to safely abandon ship, however, the the O.J. Walker tipped, spilling much of its cargo of bricks. As the crew watched, it was able to briefly right itself, before sinking to its current resting place.
The wreck is 86′ long and 14′ wide with many of its wooden structures still visible. A keen eye will be able to spot masts, the boom, anchors, and some of the rigging lying by and on the wreck. You can also still see piles of brick both on the vessel and in the sediment closeby. When the O.J. Walker sank, it lands on its keel, allowing divers to explore the vessel exactly as it might’ve moved through the water. The ship’s helm is still intact, but fragile so please be respectful and do not touch.
Vessel Type: Schooner-rigged Sailing Canal Boat (wooden)
Experience Level: Beginner
Like its cousin, the O.J. Walker, the General Butler was built in 1862, however it was built in Essex, New York and only served the New York-Burlington route for 14 years. The General Butler was named after Benjamin Butler, a lawyer and businessman from Massachusetts who served as a General during the Civil War. Uniquely designed, the mast and centerboard were able to be removed or raised to allow the vessel to be able to navigate both the canal and its locks, yet still sail the lake when fully rigged. This allowed for goods to be transported not only across the lake, but down through the locks and to the Hudson River.
Similar to the O.J. Walker, the General Butler met an untimely demise at the hands of a storm. On December 9, 1876, a winter gale surprised the General Butler’s Captain – in an attempt to reach calmer waters, he made way for the Burlington Breakwater. However, during the attempt the steering wheel and rudder broke, eliminating any hope of guiding the boat to land and safety. The five passengers were in a way lucky, as the wind and waves bashed the General Butler against the breakwater – this allowed them to one by one jump to the breakwater. Another stroke of luck for them was the bravery of local seaman James Wakefield who braved the storm in a 14-foot rowboat. Wakefield and his son reached the breakwater and saved the Captain, his daughter, her friend, one crewman, and another passenger from certain death from hypothermia.
Though the masts have been removed as they posed a hazard to navigation, the General Butler lies mostly intact with her cargo of marble. You can also see an anchor attached to the wreck. While penetration is illegal, there are five hatches on deck to look into. As a sailing vessel, there are also still dead-eyes, windlasses, and cleats. The wreck is 88ft long and 14ft wide.
Source: Historic Roots || Maritime Archaeological and Historical Society News || Vermont Historical Sites || Lake Champlain Maritime Museum: General Butler
Horse Powered Ferry
Vessel Type: Horse Ferry (wooden)
Experience Level: Intermediate
There is little concrete history known about the Burlington Bay Horse Ferry, even its original name is a mystery. However, it is currently the only known surviving vessel of its type which makes it a sought after dive. Its existence was discovered in 1983 during a side-scar sonar survey of the area. Horse ferries were favored in the early 1800s before they became surpassed by steam powered ferries. These ferries were propelled by a team of horses that walked along a turn-table that turned the paddle wheels.
The Horse Ferry is 63ft long and 23ft wide; unlike the other wrecks in the area, the ferry is relatively low-lying so proper buoyancy is crucial. There are two paddle wheels still intact, but fragile and slowly deteriorating. Originally comprised of iron hubs and oak spokes, they are the highlight of the ferry.
Source: Lake Champlain Maritime Museum: Horse Ferry || Maritime Archaeological and Historical Society News
Depth: 65ft (stern) – 80ft (bow)
Vessel Type: Canal Boat (wooden)
Experience Level: Advanced
The wreck commonly known as the “Coal Barge” is the A.R. Noyes. As one of many standard canal boats in the area, specifics for the A.R. Noyes are unknown. This style of vessel first appeared in 1823 as a means of moving goods through the newly opened Champlain Canal. The A.R. Noyes is believed to be one of several canal boats that broke free from their steam tug Tisdale on October 17, 1884. The A.R. Noyes was the only one reported lost.
The wreck is 90ft long and 14ft wide and lies on a slope. Due to depth, underwater lights are required for this dive. As its name implies, it was carrying coal when it sunk, some of which you can still see.
Many of the wrecks in Lake Champlain are considered underwater historic sites and as such require permission to dive. Permission is free and based on an annual registration. Sign-up through the local dive shops or through the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum website. Check local dive shops to see when they have available charters.