Lake Champlain: Carrying On The Tradition Of Working Boats

Sep 6, 2018
Originally published on August 14, 2018 5:15 pm

Lake Champlain has a long history as a commercial waterway. In the 1800s, it was a crowded passage for boats hauling lumber and other goods between New York City and Montreal and points in between.

Much of that industry is long gone, but there's still some work on the lake for those who want it.

Twenty-eight-year-old Lucas Campbell runs Green Mountain Marine Services, a marine construction company. He has a fleet of boats and trucks and cranes that can take on jobs in remote parts of Lake Champlain — but it's his biggest boat that really stands out.

"It's an old military-style landing craft, like storming the beaches of Normandy," Campbell said. "It's from 1952. Some people call it a barge. Technically it's a landing craft because it's self-propelled."

On a muggy August morning, the landing craft was docked at Burton Island State Park. Campbell and I clambered up to the wheelhouse in the back of the boat.

“Climb on up. Make yourself at home,” he told me. “There’s a, well, there’s a bench there, and that’s about it for amenities.”

Campbell has a deal worked out with the Vermont State Parks to take trash, recycling and other waste off Burton Island, which isn't accessible by car. On the day I spent with Campbell, a truck full of recycling was loaded onto his boat.

We then headed out to another island to drop off the truck. Campbell told me there's really only one other boat like this on the lake. It's owned by the Lake Champlain Transportation Company, which operates the ferries, so there's some demand for his boat.

Campbell grew up in landlocked Richmond, Vermont. He said he got his start on the water as a kid at the Community Sailing Center in Burlington. Later, he went to Maine Maritime Academy for his captain's license, then started getting work on boats in Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico, and operating a small ferry to the state parks on Lake Champlain in the summers.

“And then I worked for a small expedition cruise ship company for a while in Alaska, and that’s where I – I got done with that, and was like, ‘oh, I got some money, what should I do?’ and some terrible friends convinced me I should buy a landing craft,” Campbell said.

Over the last few years, he’s made lots of alterations to the boat, like painting it dark green. Last summer, Campbell said he was able to make his marine construction work a full-time job for the first time.

“There’s always going to be a niche and a call for people who know how to do that work and who have the gear to do it,” said Art Cohn, the co-founder of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum.

According to Cohn, Campbell is carrying on a tradition on the lake that started when it was a major thoroughfare for freight traffic in the 1800s. That meant there was lots of infrastructure needing maintenance, so there was work for enterprising individuals.

“They would get a wooden barge, put a steam boiler on it for power, rig a crane, a pole with a boom on it, and then find some small steam tug available to move it, and they would simply offer their services,” Cohn said.

Now, about 150 years later, Campbell is following just about the same formula, minus the steam engine, getting jobs wherever he can.

“We put a power line out to Providence Island, a new submarine power cable," Campbell said. "We take care of the bike ferry at the causeway. We put it in [and] take it out each spring and fall."

As we made the hourlong trip back from Burton Island to Fish Bladder Island – the landing craft only gets up to about 10 miles per hour – Campbell said getting work in this business is all about getting to know the right people.

“Word of mouth is how, I mean that’s how most of Vermont operates in general. ... I ask around, you know, it’s like, ‘hey, do you guys know who to call to get the bridge opened?’ And sure enough, one of the old captains I worked with, he’s like, ‘oh yeah, here’s the number in my phone,’ gave it to me, and there you go,” Campbell said.

“There’s no handbook on how to do this,” he added.

Every winter, Campbell leaves Vermont to find work on a boat, usually somewhere warm. He's thinking of options for this coming winter.

“South Pacific seems interesting, New Zealand," Campbell said. "I haven’t ever really sailed around the Caribbean either, so that could be fun."

But Campbell's operation on Lake Champlain has gotten big enough that he said he'll always return to Vermont in the summers. So among the sailboats and yachts and ferries that make up most of the boat traffic on the lake these days, keep your eye out for a big, green landing craft for many summers to come.

Many of us share a connection with a river, lake, stream or pond. Throughout the summer, listen to VPR to hear personal stories from Vermonters about how bodies of water around the state affect their lives, and how they've seen them change over time. Tweet @vprnet to share your favorite bodies of water in Vermont.

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