|Burlington Breakwater North, VT|
Description: The completion of the forty-six-mile-long Champlain Canal in 1823 linked Lake Champlain to the Hudson River and the New York City market. In 1843, the twelve-mile-long Chambly Canal was constructed in Quebec, bypassing the Richelieu River rapids, and allowing cheap Canadian lumber to flow from the St. Lawrence to Lake Champlain. These canals led to the growth of the port at Burlington, and by 1873, Burlington had become the third largest lumber port in the country.
The harbor at Burlington, exposed to winds from the south and the northwest, offered little protection for vessels until work on a federally funded breakwater began in 1837. The original V-shaped breakwater was 1,000 feet in length, had a budget of $28,727, and was completed in 1854. The breakwater was subsequently lengthened as wharf construction continued to grow both north and south along the Burlington waterfront.
In 1867, the breakwater was extended 1,500 feet to the north using the same type of construction as in the original breakwater: wooden cribs, 80 to 100 feet long by 30 feet wide filled with stone ballast. A 360-foot section of breakwater was completed north of the extended original breakwater in 1890, leaving at 200-foot opening between the two.
A keeper’s residence was built on the breakwater in 1875, but remained vacant for roughly a decade before it was sold at auction and then moved to Burlington to be used as a private residence. Apparently, the keepers preferred to live in the city with their families and row out to the breakwater to tend the lights.
In December 1876, the ninety-foot-long wooden schooner General Butler, captained by James Montgomery, left Isle La Motte bound for Burlington loaded with thirty tons of marble. Captain Montgomery had a deckhand on board plus his sixteen-year-old daughter and her girlfriend and an injured quarry worker headed for the hospital in Burlington. During the journey, a storm blew up, and a mountainous wave struck the vessel, tearing its wheel from the rudder post. An anchor was tossed overboard to hold the schooner in place until means for steering the vessel could be jerry-rigged. This improvised tiller, however, proved ineffective, and the schooner struck the Burlington Breakwater. Captain Montgomery succeeded in getting those aboard the General Butler safely onto the breakwater, where they faced the prospect of dying from exposure.
A crowd had gathered on shore to witness the schooner's attempt to reach the protected waters behind the breakwater, and from this number, James Wakefield, keeper of the breakwater lights, stepped forward and bravely rowed his skiff out to the breakwater and rescued the stranded quintet from certain death.
The wooden towers were eventually replaced with steel light towers: the north and middle lights in 1925, and the south light in 1950. Though less susceptible to damage from the elements, the modern towers lacked the charm of the breakwater’s wooden end-pieces.
The lights were manned until 1938. On the evening when the lights were manually lit for the last time, Keeper Rolla W. Hill was ceremoniously accompanied back to shore by a small flotilla of twelve boats carrying seventy-five people.
In 1999, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy secured $1.3 million for stabilizing the Burlington Breakwater, and an additional $2.5 million was added to the repair work by another bill in 2001. "The Burlington waterfront is a hub of commercial and recreational activity and the breakwater is a major reason why," said Leahy. "Without that barrier, the waters would be too rough to enjoy the safe harbor we have now.”
“Given the historic significance of the breakwater,” says Burlington’s Mayor Peter Clavelle, “we came up with the idea of recreating the original lighthouse structures, and approached Senator Patrick Leahy’s office about the possibility of creating the replicas.” Leahy was able to obtain $250,000 for this project through a transportation bill in 2001.
The lighthouses were built on the Burlington waterfront by Atlantic Mechanical, Inc. of Wiscasset, Maine, so the public could view the construction process. Nearby, a kiosk, staffed with a historical interpreter, provided information about the Burlington breakwater and the lighthouse project.
It is obvious to even the casual observer that the northern and southern breakwater lighthouses are different. The original lighthouse plans could not be located according to Art Cohn, director of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. “What we did,” he says, “was use photographic evidence to create a set of plans that from the outside seem historically correct, and of course we chose two different time periods to represent - the smaller, southern light tower, which is circa 1857, and the larger, northern light tower which is circa 1890. We worked with the photographs and other historical images to ensure that people seeing the towers today would be actually viewing the same façade that they would have seen during those time periods.”
The two lighthouses are designed to withstand the environmental challenges that destroyed earlier versions. The lower portion of the northern lighthouse consists of heavy steel members capable of resisting forces approaching 400 pounds per square inch. The steel frame was covered with wooden panels, the bottom six feet of which are designed to break away in the event of a major catastrophic ice event, leaving the steel frame and the remainder of the structure intact.
At 7:35 p.m. on September 12, 2004, when the assembled crowd reached its terminal count the south lighthouse was activated. Seconds later, a flare lit the sky about the northern lighthouse, and it too began to flash. Speaking at the lighting ceremony, Senator Leahy remarked: “I love Lake Champlain, and I always thought its beauty could never be improved. But these distinctive new lighthouses proved me wrong. They bring an historical context to the rebirth of the Burlington waterfront. They are beacons that beckon us to enjoy and appreciate our lake. They welcome and guide pleasure boats, tourists and Vermonters looking for a picturesque place to relax and to enjoy the magnificent views. Lighthouse lovers everywhere are really going to enjoy seeing them.”
Located at the northern end of the breakwater that protects the harbor in Burlington. The Burlington-Port Kent Ferry passes near the lighthouse.
The lighthouse is owned by the City of Burlington. Tower closed.
The Burlington-Port Kent Ferry passes near the lighthouse.
The lighthouse is owned by the City of Burlington. Tower closed.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.