A Lake Champlain Shoreline Mystery

Vermont Public Radio Commentary
by Chester H. Liebs

© 1999 by Chester H. Liebs
Made possible by: The Alma Gibbs Donchian Foundation and the Preservation Trust of Vermont

Lake Champlain’s underwater heritage of shipwrecks has received much well-deserved attention recently. However there are many important historic sites at the edge of the water as well. Since the millennium’s fast upon us, I though I’d recount the discovery of an particularly haunting place along the Lake-- a mysterious time -capsule-of-history from our own vanishing century.

I came upon it by accident one summer day, in the late 1980s, when looking at lakefront property in Grand Isle county. The real-estate agent guided her car along busy Route 2 as we crossed the stone causeway atop Malletts bay. After climbing a long hill we veered off the highway and cut across a field along a small rutted road with grass growing up the middle.

As we reached the edge of a thick grove of trees, this faint trace mysteriously metamorphosed into a wider road heading down a steep bank to the shore. My antennae as a detective of places began arching and sparking. This was not your ordinary driveway. It was quite substantial and heavily reinforced by that brown-colored concrete used for building highways, railway bridges and factories earlier this century. “Why this road could support a convoy of heavily loaded trucks” I thought.

At the end of this peculiar driveway was an even stranger house--large, rambling, two-stories, with a roof of many pointy gables. It had been deserted for some time. Inside, while the realtor extolled the fact that I could sell off some of the surrounding property to finance the building’s renovation, I was transfixed by a strange room, entered through a thick steel door like a bank vault.

We then stepped outside and walked a few feet to the shore. There, mounted on a masonry base, at the head of the rather secluded cove rimming the property, was the remains of a round glass search light, its once bright brass case oxidized to a dull grey green. This appeared once to have been a very powerful light capable of drilling its beam through the thickest fog--perhaps clear to the opposite shore. I wondered what had once been docking here at night to require such a dazzling luminescent greeting?

My eyes glanced right and I realized I might be looking at the answer. There, a short way off, was the remains of a wood-frame boathouse. Long and rather narrow, it had not been the home of your typical pleasure boat. Hum it must have been built for something very long, sleek and fast--a boat that could speed through the water for many hours while gobbling up a lot of fuel. I made this deduction as my eyes glanced up the hill and focused on a large shed. Inside was a huge rusting fuel-storage tank and a coil of rotting hose long enough to reach down to the water.

As we headed back to the car, rather than dreaming of how I could fix up a vacation home, my mind was busily processing all the strange clues to the mystery I had just seen. Was the massive concrete entrance way merely evidence of a former owner with the means to reinforce a driveway, to prevent erosion for the next thousand years? Did he or she have valuables that they needed to protect in a room built like a vault? Were there a lot of visitors by boat at night, in foggy weather, so that a powerful searchlight was needed to guide them? Did one-time residents have a weakness for speeding up and down the lake in a long, fast boat, and the money to keep it housed and fueled....

Or had I stumbled upon a series of clues relating to a clandestine aspect of Lake Champlain’s early-20th-century history-- one resulting from the only amendment to the constitution that was ever repealed? A time of a new revival of lake trade, illegal but often overlooked by local authorities, when fast boats brought booze from Canada where it was legal, south to the States, during the era of Prohibition?

Author, and observer of the everyday landscape, Chester Liebs is Professor Emeritus of History and Founder of the Historic Preservation Program at the University of Vermont.