A Floating History Of The '18-Wheelers Of Their Day'

The canal schooner Lois McClure is a replica of the boats that carried cargo along northeast waterways in the 1800s. i i

hide captionThe canal schooner Lois McClure is a replica of the boats that carried cargo along northeast waterways in the 1800s.

Sarah Harris/NPR
The canal schooner Lois McClure is a replica of the boats that carried cargo along northeast waterways in the 1800s.

The canal schooner Lois McClure is a replica of the boats that carried cargo along northeast waterways in the 1800s.

Sarah Harris/NPR

The Lois McClure, a replica of an 1862 canal schooner, is also a floating museum. This summer she's sailing historic waterways in Vermont, New York, Ontario and Quebec, docking in towns for a history lesson.

The Lois starts from her berth at Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Vergennes, Vt. First mate Tom Larsen, a strapping guy with a long ponytail and glasses, pulls hand-over-hand on a thick white rope, getting the Lois into the open water. A tugboat comes up alongside the schooner, ties a line and tows her out onto Lake Champlain.

The Lois McClure (left) passes a fire boat as it arrives at New York's North Cove Marina in 2005. Canal schooners used wind power on open lakes, and lowered their masts and raised their centerboards to be towed through canals. i i

hide captionThe Lois McClure (left) passes a fire boat as it arrives at New York's North Cove Marina in 2005. Canal schooners used wind power on open lakes, and lowered their masts and raised their centerboards to be towed through canals.

Diane Bondareff /AP
The Lois McClure (left) passes a fire boat as it arrives at New York's North Cove Marina in 2005. Canal schooners used wind power on open lakes, and lowered their masts and raised their centerboards to be towed through canals.

The Lois McClure (left) passes a fire boat as it arrives at New York's North Cove Marina in 2005. Canal schooners used wind power on open lakes, and lowered their masts and raised their centerboards to be towed through canals.

Diane Bondareff /AP

Last year, the Lois McClure set off on a three-year project to mark the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. She's a cargo carrier, built long after that conflict, but the canals she sailed were built by peacetime leaders who thought the country needed waterways to move supplies in case hostilities resumed.

Canal schooners like the Lois McClure were basically the 18-wheelers of their day, says Art Cohn, co-founder of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum.

"These boats were blue-collar, work-a-day trucks from their generation," Cohn says. They were sailboats that could also be towed through the canal systems.

Canal schooners carried lumber, coal and stone. They'd even bring agricultural
products like hay and apples down to New York City.

But the railroad industry put a lot of boats out of business. By the 1920s, canal schooners were mostly obsolete, and their history was forgotten.

But then divers found the wreck of a canal schooner on the bottom of Lake
Champlain. The museum decided to build a replica and take it on tour.

"As a historian, as someone who wants people to engage in their history, the boat was magical in that it provoked that," Cohn says. "You walked on board, you were interested, you wanted to know."

Back on the deck of the Lois, the weather is chilly and it's pouring rain, but no one complains. Crew member Len Ruth says that working on the boat makes that history very real.

"Just feeling what it was like for the people who lived on these boats," he says. "A really good way to do that is actually to live on board and do things the way they did as much as you can."

Ruth wears waders and pulls the hood of his raincoat all the way down over his glasses. He says canal boat sailors from 1862 probably had rain like this, too.

"They would've had to put up with it when it happened, just as we do, so in a way, we are real mariners," he says.

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