Benedict Arnold’s Lake Champlain Gunboat Is the Last Shipwreck of Its Kind


Preserved in the lake’s chilly waters for more than 200 years, the Spitfire now faces a new threat.

WHEN THE WOODEN GUNBOAT SPITFIRE sailed into battle as part of a flotilla engaging British naval forces on Lake Champlain in 1776, she carried an unlikely crew: ragtag American soldiers with little naval experience, under the command of a swashbuckling patriot and hero, Brigadier General Benedict Arnold. Arnold, still years away from becoming the nation’s most infamous traitor, sacrificed several vessels in what would be called the Battle of Valcour Island, after one of the islands dotting the narrow, deep lake that stretches from Québec south along the New YorkVermont border. The clash ended in defeat for Arnold, but bought valuable time for the Continental Army.

The Spitfire was among the ships lost as Arnold and his men retreated—but it was not the end of the story for the gunboat.

Perfectly preserved in the lake’s cold depths and silty mud for nearly 250 years, the Spitfire is the only remaining intact shipwreck from the American Revolution. But now it’s facing a new fight: Can the Spitfire be raised before a tiny invasive mussel finds and destroys it? Should maritime archaeologists even attempt the ambitious rescue?

Chris Sabick has pondered the Spitfire’s plight for years. As director of research and archaeology at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in the sleepy lakeside resort town of Vergennes, Vermont, Sabick has studied the gunboat for much of his career. He has long believed that the Spitfire should remain where it is. But the lake environment that has protected the Spitfire from decay for so long may soon be changing, thanks to the Quagga mussel.