"From the Land to the Lake" Home > Articles > Transportation


For thousands of years before the advent of rail and road travel, Lake Champlain served as a highway for people and goods traveling in the Champlain Valley. Natives, explorers, soldiers and settlers saw the Lake and its tributaries as natural avenues for migration, exploration, conquest and commerce. During the settlement period, the Lake became crowded with vessels carrying the products of the burgeoning agricultural economy. Later in history, commercial activity shifted onto land, ending an era in which the Lake dominated public consciousness, and ushering in a period of increased recreational use and ecological awareness.

Native Settlement and Military History

Lake Champlain and its tributaries were the lifeblood of native cultures in the Champlain Valley for thousands of years before European colonization: waterways provided food, determined boundaries and served as the primary means of transportation within home territories. The "riverine" Archaic people, who inhabited the Champlain Valley between 9,500 and 3,000 years ago, probably spent as much of their lives on water as on land. In 1609, French explorer Samuel de Champlain relied on Algonquin guides equipped with light birchbark canoes to lead him into the Champlain Valley by way of the Richelieu River and the Lake. [Related Reading Voyages of Samuel de Champlain] Champlain's exploration of this region paved the way for French colonizers, who immediately recognized the strategic military value of the Lake as the only means by which to transport the troops and supplies required to defend lucrative hunting territory. Throughout the next two hundred years, the French, the British and ultimately the American 'Rebels' jealously guarded their valuable land claims on the Lake, establishing eight forts between 1666 and 1818. In 1758, the British sent 15,000 soldiers to engage the French at Fort Carillon; the "largest army ever assembled in North America" traveled north on the Lake in 900 bateaux!

Detail of 1762 survey of Lake Champlain showing Crown Point Military Road along Otter Creek

Detail of a 1762 Survey of Lake Champlain (turned sideways) showing the Crown Point Military Road. British General Geoffrey Amherst commissioned both the drawing of this map and the building of the Military Road. From the collection of the Library of Congress

Otter Creek, often called the Indian Road, also played an important role as a throughway for travelers in the Champlain Valley. In 1759, near the conclusion of the French and Indian Wars, the British army initiated the building of the Crown Point Military Road over a long-established Native American trail running east-west, largely along the creek, from the Connecticut River to Lake Champlain. The Crown Point Road became a well-known overland route for reaching the eastern shores of the Lake. [Related Reading Otter Creek: The Indian Road] After the defeat of the British ended the American Revolution in 1783, settlers from southern New England—many of them former soldiers—came to the Champlain Valley by way of the Crown Point Road, plunging into the river in hastily-constructed watercraft where the trail was impassable. [Lessons Traveling Without Roads]

European Settlement Along the Lines of Least Resistance
Drawing of a family paddling a canoe

A popular illustration from the 1930s depicts a family of settlers paddling north in a dugout canoe. Reprinted by permission of National Life Insurance Company

Throughout the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, settlement in the Champlain Valley occurred along "lines of least resistance": the lakes, rivers and streams of the Champlain and Connecticut River Valleys. Even where rivers and lakes were not navigable, their banks provided travelers with clear paths much preferable to trailblazing through unfamiliar forests; when frozen, lakes and rivers themselves became highways.

The new generation of colonists made its way to the Champlain Valley to reap rich rewards from the fertile lowlands lying between the Lake and the rocky foothills of the Green Mountains. Clearing the land for agriculture immediately produced valuable commercial byproducts, and settlers looked again to the water as the most efficient means by which to transport their "subsistence surpluses" to appropriate markets. As early as 1794, settlers in the Champlain Valley were rafting timber 'down' the Lake to markets in Québec. From Québec most of the timber was exported to England, where cordwood and pine logs suitable for mast poles were in high demand.

The Commercial Era

With lands cleared and planted and millwheels turning in Otter Creek, the subsistence lifestyle gave way to a more entrepreneurial mode of existence for Addison County's early nineteenth century inhabitants. Hearty pioneers became successful farmers and millwrights for whom commercial production was increasingly practicable. Shipping and receiving became a business in itself, and the lakefront was dotted with ferry landings, ports, farms, businesses and hotels. [Lesson Buying and Borrowing at the Colonial Store]

Throughout the settlement period, marketable goods produced in the Champlain Valley followed the flow of the Lake northward to Québec on ships, sloops, schooners and log rafts. Even despite strict trading restrictions imposed at various times by French, British and American authorities, lively trade activity between the Champlain Valley and Québec persisted throughout the settlement period. Exports from the Valley included the rich fruits of newly developed farmland: grain, flax, cattle and maple sugar were exchanged for manufactured products imported from Europe, including salt, tea and cloth.

Engraving showing Larrabee's Point, Shoreham, Vt. and Lake Champlain

This detail from an engraving titled "United States Hotel, Larrabee's Point, Vermont" shows the United States Hotel on the left and two commercial buildings on the right. Sailboats, canoes and a steamboat traverse the Lake. Josiah Goodhue, History of Shoreham

This trading pattern shifted dramatically with the opening of the Champlain Canal at Whitehall, New York in 1823. The preferred northern Champlain-Richelieu trading route was immediately supplanted by the faster, cheaper southern route from the Champlain Valley to the Hudson Valley and New York City. In his history of Lake Champlain's sailing canal boats, Arthur B. Cohn states that 20% more commercial vessels appeared on the Lake in the years after the Canal opened, making the 1820s and 30s "boom years" for merchants in the Champlain Valley. The tide of new settlement west of the Hudson Valley provided new markets, which became even more easily accessible when the Erie Canal opened in 1825. In the second half of the nineteenth century, farmers, manufacturers and merchants in the Champlain Valley turned their attention westward. [Related Reading Lake Champlain's Sailing Canal Boats]

The Advent of the Railroad and Changing Role of the Lake

Ultimately, trading patterns in the Champlain Valley would shift again, this time away from the Lake completely. The arrival of the railroads in the second half of the eighteenth century finally brought the focus of commerical activity onto land: trains were faster and more reliable than steamers and canal boats, and, furthermore, ran in all seasons. The Lake, in conjunction with the railways, continued to serve the lumber industry into the early twentieth century, but as land-based transportation became increasingly viable, the waterways slowly emptied of commercial vessels.

In the last two hundred years, the Lake has transformed from the major artery of the industrial and mercantile economy into the more picturesque scene of summer recreation and tourism. But clues to the former importance of the waterways in "channeling the flow of people" are still visible in the Champlain Valley landscape: in the cities, such as Burlington and Vergennes, that sprung up beside ports and harbors, in the roads, such as U.S. Route 7, which follow the contours of rivers and creeks, and in waterfront architecture: boat landings and buildings once housing stores, mills and warehouses. The scale and character of transportation on the Lake and its tributaries have changed many times over many thousands of years, but the patterns of habitation, settlement and trade determined by the waterways remain imprinted on the landscape.