The Water Witch of Lake Champlain

The schooner Water Witch is one of the oldest fully intact commercial sailing ships to be located underwater in the United States.
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The schooner Water Witch is one of the oldest fully intact commercial sailing ships to be located underwater in the United States. The vessel lies on the bottom of Lake Champlain between New York and Vermont.

In 1977, the schooner Water Witch was discovered by Derek Grout, a Canadian diver, who literally bumped into the shipwreck while he was being towed underwater. The impact of hitting the shipwreck knocked him senseless for a few moments. As he recovered, the view of the stern of a ship appeared faintly before him and then quickly disappeared into the darkness as he floated back to the surface. For the next two years, Derek and several of his friends tried repeatedly to relocate the shipwreck only to come away disappointed and unsuccessful each time. In 1979 his search team invited Jim Kennard, an electronics engineer from Fairport, New York to help relocate the shipwreck with the aid of his side scan sonar equipment.

In retrospect the actual time spent searching for the sunken ship would be very small compared to the years it would take to uncover the details of this vessel’s life on the lake. In fact it would take the next ten years to discover the details of its history and the cause and actual date that she foundered in Lake Champlain.

The story of the Water Witch begins late in 1831 when Captain Jahaziel Sherman commissioned Samuel Wood to build a new steam vessel at his shipyard in Fort Cassin, Vermont. Completed in the early part of 1832, the Water Witch was a small boat as compared to other lake steamers, displacing only 107 tons. With a length of 90 feet and a beam of 17 feet, she drew only 8 feet of water. The Water Witch engines could develop about 40 horsepower and was capable of reaching a speed of approximately 8 miles per hour. The Water Witch operated for the next few years as a general cargo carrier and tow vessel, pulling timber rafts and barges between Fort Cassin, Vermont and Whitehall, New York.

Captain Sherman had a very distinguished career on Lake Champlain. He had been the captain of two earlier steamboats, Phoenix and the Franklin. Having had a disagreement with the directors of the Lake Champlain Transportation Company (CTC), Sherman decided to go into business for himself. Securing the necessary funds, he was able to build his own steam vessel. The CTC must have felt the competition of the small steamboat, because in November of 1833 they came to terms with Captain Sherman. The Water Witch would thereafter be confined to towing and would leave the passenger business to them. Finally in 1835 the Champlain Transportation Company decided to purchase the Water Witch from Captain Sherman for the sum of $10,000 and would continue to keep her in the towing business. That same year the CTC purchased several other lake transportation companies including the Champlain Ferry Company and the St. Albans Steamboat Company. These acquisitions appear to have been a strategy of the CTC to monopolize the steamboat business on Lake Champlain.

In 1836 the Water Witch was converted into a two masted schooner and then sold. For the next 30 years she would continue in the cargo carrying business. During those years life on the ship was uneventful, as there was little mention of her up until 1866. Navigation on Lake Champlain opened that year in mid April. The schooner Water Witch was out early in the season and engaged in transporting iron ore from the Cheever Ore Bed (near Port Henry, NY) to Burlington Vermont. The ships master was Captain Thomas Mock, who with his wife and three children made up the crew of the ship.

The converted schooner was not at all optimized for sail and combined with the fact that she was overloaded this time with a heavy load of iron ore, made maneuvering the ship in rough weather very difficult. It was only a few weeks into the season when the Water Witch met with disaster. It was mid day and the high winds that continued to blow created large waves on the lake. Suddenly, without any warning, one of these large waves slammed into the Water Witch with such a tremendous force that it caused the lumbering ships’ cargo to shift drastically to its port side. Iron ore began spilling out of the holds, across the deck of the ship and into the lake. The cabin and both of the ships’ holds were rapidly filling with water. The schooner was sinking beneath the waves. Captain Mock had only moments to react. There was no time to reach the small yawl that trailed behind the schooner. The Captain, his wife, and children scrambled to free themselves of the ship as it sank from under them. The Water Witch plunged to her final destination in the deep waters off Split Rock Mountain, a few miles north of Westport, New York. Unfortunately, the incident happened so fast that there had been no time to reach their small infant in the cabin below.

The perils of this disaster had not ended for the captain and his family. They had been cast into the deadly freezing waters of Lake Champlain, the ice having gone out just a few weeks before. In water this cold, the human body becomes numb within minutes. Legs and arms hardly function with any strength at all. Death by exposure for Captain Mock and his family would only take a very short time in these waters. All would have been lost for the Mocks had it not been for the Sloop Trader that had seen the Water Witch founder. After being in the water for about 20 minutes, their physical strength almost completely gone, the captain and crew were saved.

During the 1980’s the silence of the resting place of the Water Witch had been broken only a few times by SCUBA divers of our search team. There was great anticipation, among all of us, just prior to our first decent to the shipwreck in wondering just what conditions we should find below in this unique "time capsule" from the past. A visit to the schooner must be relatively short due to its depth. It is dark and very cold most of the time. But, it is an "awesome" experience to make a dive on this shipwreck.

Approaching the wreck from the bow the first object which comes into view is the portside anchor still hooked within its well, chained in place. Nearby, in the sediment below, lies the partially covered starboard anchor having fallen from its well. Looking upward a large square cut bowsprit stretches out away from the ship and into the darkness. Moving up to the bow deck the ships windless appears. As one looks to either side, the beam of a dive light will spot a glimpse of the many deadeyes still firmly secured to the ship rail. Then suddenly, we nearly run into the broken end of the foremast, snapped about two feet above the deck and lying out over the starboard railing. At the base of the mast there is a ring of hand carved wooden cleats.

The forward hold of the ship is just past the broken mast. It is here that we observe the first sign of the iron ore debris on the deck of the Water Witch. Peering into this compartment, one cannot see anything more than sediment which has accumulated over the past 120 years. Moving onward, the second ships hold comes into view, with similar results as the one forward. However, this time there is something just barely visible within this hold. It appears as if it might be an old bilge pump. Past this hold there is a hole in the deck where the main mast one stood. Later, the mast was discovered lying adjacent to the ship.

Directly in front of us is a small entrance into the ship’s cabin. Entering this area is extremely dangerous and has been attempted only once. It is a small cabin, perhaps 12 feet in length. A wooden stairway leads down into the entrance of the cabin. From there, though limited in visibility, one can faintly see some of the Spartan details of the interior. There are many wooden wall panels that have now fallen into the silt at various times over the years. Surprisingly, some of these panels still contain their original white painted trim. The cabin area is filled with much sedimentation. A divers movement within this area is extremely limited. There is only enough room for a diver to squeeze in between the level of the silt in the cabin and the ceiling. Every move by the diver causes a dense brown cloud of suspended sedimentation to form. Visibility behind the diver is virtually nonexistent. Locating the entrance again by sight is only by chance without the use of a safety line attached outside the ship.

Past the cabin entrance and moving up on the stern deck of the ship, a carved tiller arm is observed still in place, its final position fixed for eternity. More iron ore debris is scattered about in this area, leading one to believe that the vessel may have gone down stern first. Passing over the back railing and then dropping down over the stern of the schooner, there are two small window openings followed by the ship’s rudder that is deeply seated into the bottom. Upon studying the side scan sonar records of the Water Witch, it was apparent that the schooner had dumped its cargo for several hundred feet before it eventually sank. There was a very curious object 30 feet off the stern of the wreck. During another dive we discovered it to be the remains of the small yawl which Captain Mock could not reach in time.

In the 1980’s Jim Kennard and Scott Hill have returned to the wreck of the Water Witch on several occasions. Each time, they have photographed numerous details of the ship to provide enough information to reconstruct a drawing of how the vessel presently appears on the bottom of the lake.

Today only a few divers have seen the Water Witch of Lake Champlain in her deep watery grave. Everything is as it was in 1866 when the schooner abruptly plunged to the bottom. Only one new item has been added to the ship since that time. A small plaque has been placed on the capstan to remind any future visitors of the uniqueness of this ship and its legacy. It reads simply:

" This wreck, the Water Witch, 1832 found September 3, 1977 by Derek Grout. LOOK , ENJOY".

Location:     N44° 14.00     W73° 20.08     

Approximately 1/4 mile due south of Diamond Island

 



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anonymous by Carole Burros Delger on 10/22/2009

Stella Mock was my Mom. Thomas was her brother. Her father Frank was also a Captain and the last steamboat Captain on the Savannah. There is much to the story not told.

Please write more of the story on Captain Mock and we will publish it here as a continuance of this story.

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