If you’ve been to the National Museum of American History, you’ve probably seen the Rev War gunboat Philadelphia. She was one of the vessels in the flotilla Benedict Arnold assembled in 1776 to try to keep the British from descending Lake Champlain and cutting off New England from the rest of the colonies.
Arnold’s makeshift fleet met the British at the Battle of Valcour Island that October. They lost the battle, but did buy the American cause some precious time. With winter looming, the British were unable to keep advancing southward, and when they finally took another crack at the Champlain-Hudson corridor the next year, they ended up at Saratoga.
Lorenzo Hagglund found Philadelphia‘s wreck in 1935, and she ended up at the Smithsonian. In 1997 researchers found another boat from Arnold’s flotilla, the Spitfire, sitting upright at the bottom of Lake Champlain. She’s still there, and now they’re trying to figure out what to do with her:
“This is not a sexy boat,” said Art Cohn, the emeritus director of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum who is now writing a management plan for the Spitfire that he will submit to the U.S. Navy. “It was relatively small, flat-bottomed and quickly built, but that’s not its value.”
“The principal value, in my opinion, is it connects us to 1776 and the formative years of this country,” he said.
For years, the bottom — Cohn won’t say exactly where the Spitfire rests or how far down — has been thought of as the safest place for the Spitfire, thanks to the protection of the cold, deep water above it.
Now the fear is of a looming threat from the invasive species quagga mussels, which could destroy the wreck. They haven’t arrived yet in Lake Champlain, but experts fear it’s only a matter of time.
Cohn’s plan will include recommendations for the future of the Spitfire, including possibly leaving it where it is or raising it, preserving it and then displaying it in a museum. He hasn’t chosen a course yet, but his worry over the mussels is clear.
“Our concern over the length of this study has really been elevated based on what we’re learning about the implications of the mussel invasion. That information is sobering and a concern,” Cohn said. “As we move toward final recommendations our goal is to try to develop a strategy so that this shipwreck survives for future generations.”
Those doggone Ukranian mussels. Oh, well. Maybe we’ll get another cool Rev War gunboat exhibit out of this.