Business & Economy

Then Again: The 64-mile Champlain Canal abruptly reoriented Vermont’s economy

Three Canadian Pin Plats sit tied to the Shepard and Morse Lumber Co. docks in Burlington in about 1900. Silver Special Collections Library, University of Vermont

For nearly two centuries, people living in western Vermont saw their future, or at least their fortune, lying to the north, in Canada. But in the 1820s, events conspired to do what patriotism and laws couldn’t do — ally Vermont firmly with the rest of the United States.

The initial lure of the north was perhaps inevitable. It started with the French, the first Europeans to visit, garrison and eventually settle Vermont. Unlike the Native Americans who had originally peopled Vermont, the French had allegiances that pointed them almost exclusively north to Canada, which their countrymen were colonizing. In contrast, Native Americans had trade ties in multiple directions.

When the British succeeded the French, their settlers also tended to look north. The reason involved the geography of trade. Western Vermont was isolated from the more populous regions to the south. In contrast, eastern Vermont was tied via the Connecticut River to Boston and New York.

Just the most nonperishable goods from western Vermont could survive being transported over crude roads and down rivers to markets in New York and Massachusetts, and then only at great expense. Shipping goods north on Lake Champlain to the Canadian market was much simpler, and more profitable. 

Merchants still had to find a way around the rapids on the Richelieu River, where they had the choice of moving goods overland or using timber rafts to run the rapids. The goods moving north — which included huge volumes of lumber, as well as surplus livestock and produce — were sold in St. Jean, Montreal and Quebec City. On their return south, merchants brought items that were otherwise nearly impossible to obtain in western Vermont, such as manufactured wares, glass, paint, wine and salt.

During the American Revolution, prominent Vermonters, including Ethan and Ira Allen and Thomas Chittenden, secretly negotiated allying Vermont with British-controlled Canada. From a business point of view, joining with Canada would have made sense. 

Vermonters made a similar calculation during the run-up to the War of 1812. When President Thomas Jefferson ordered a boycott of trade with Britain, Vermonters largely ignored it. Refusing to trade with the enemy would have meant accepting economic devastation. Instead, Vermonters, particularly those in the northwest corner of the state, continued to trade with Canada. They had little other choice.

But in 1823, the flow of goods from Vermont to Canada suddenly slowed to a trickle. The momentous change started on Oct. 8 of that year. On that day, the Gleaner of St. Albans, carrying a cargo of wheat and potash, became the first vessel to enter the newly constructed 64-mile-long Champlain Canal, which connected Lake Champlain to the Hudson River, and therefore to the New York City market. 

The Gleaner was specially created for this task. Its owners, Julius Hoyt and Nehemiah Kingman, designed the boat’s width to fit the new canal, down which horses or mules would tow it. But the owners also added a sail so the Gleaner could also travel on Lake Champlain between its homeport in St. Albans and the canal.

The Gleaner’s maiden voyage faced considerable delays. The canal was so new that the boat was obliged to wait at Waterford, New York, for construction of the final lock to be completed. 

People understood that this initial passage was a momentous occasion. Hoyt and Kingman came along for the ride and a flotilla of festively decorated boats followed in the Gleaner’s wake. When the convoy reached Troy, New York, a band played while a procession led the owners to a public dinner commemorating the canal’s opening. 

Similar festivities greeted the Gleaner at Albany, Poughkeepsie, and finally in New York City, where cannon volleys, brass bands and celebratory dinners marked its arrival. A poet even penned a song for the occasion, honoring the Gleaner as the “Barque of the Mountains.”

The Gleaner’s design drew rave reviews. The Mercantile Advertiser newspaper of New York City noted that “the vessel was built as an experiment and is found to answer all the uses intended. She sails as fast and bears the changes of weather in the lake and river as well as ordinary sloops and is constructed properly for passing through the canal.”

A new class of cargo vessel or “canal schooner” suddenly began appearing on Lake Champlain. Like the Gleaner, these sailboats were built to fit snugly in the canal to maximize their cargo capacity. Within five years of the canal’s opening, the number of cargo vessels on the lake increased five-fold to roughly 200. 

New York State footed the bill for construction of the canal and then collected tolls to recoup the money. Vermonters might have noted the irony that their material lives were being improved by one of their greatest adversaries. For decades, New York’s government had fought an intense and ultimately failed effort to claim control of Vermont. 

But New York was hardly acting altruistically. The canal would benefit New Yorkers as much as Vermonters.

The canal’s impact was almost instantaneous. Vermont’s lumber industry was one of the chief beneficiaries. By the end of 1824, the state of New York reported that 22 million feet of sawed lumber, 665,108 cubic feet of hewn lumber, and 514,407 cubic feet of round lumber had passed south through the canal. Responding to the huge demand for lumber, Vermonters built numerous sawmills along the Champlain Valley.

Stacks of lumber crowd the Burlington waterfront in this photograph taken circa 1875. Lumber was a major export product from Vermont during the 19th century. Silver Special Collections Library, University of Vermont

Merchants often had the lumber constructed into enormous rafts, some 1,000 feet long, that were towed through the canals. The rafts proved hard to steer, so they frequently struck the canal’s banks, causing considerable damage. To cover the cost of canal repairs and to discourage these giant lumber rafts, New York charged double the toll that would have been assessed if the same wood had been transported by boat.

In addition to lumber, large quantities of agricultural and other products began moving south. By the end of the canal’s first full year of operation, 111 tons of butter and cheese, 41 tons of whiskey, 24 tons of cornmeal and 21 tons of beans and peas had been shipped south. Merchants built warehouses and docks along the lakefront to accommodate the rapidly growing trade.

Canadian officials recognized the economic threat posed by the Champlain Canal. They responded by building the Chambly Canal to bypass the rapids on the Richelieu, but construction wasn’t completed until 1843. 

The delay cost the Canadian economy dearly. During the two decades when the Champlain Canal faced no competition for lake traffic, Vermonters forged strong ties with the rest of the American market, which the canal had opened to them. 

And ever since then, the state’s economy has been focused almost exclusively to the south.

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Mark Bushnell

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