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The Ticonderoga outside the Skenesborough Museum in Whitehall, NY. Photo: Sarah Harris
The Ticonderoga outside the Skenesborough Museum in Whitehall, NY. Photo: Sarah Harris

What happens to an old warship, 200 years later?

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The war of 1812 may seem like it happened a long time ago. But in Whitehall, New York, residents have a daily reminder: the Ticonderoga.

For the past 50 years, the battleship has been sitting squarely on the lawn of the Skenesborough Museum. But it's not clear who's responsible for preserving the boat.

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Reported by

Sarah Harris
Reporter and Producer

It's hard to miss the Ticonderoga. The ship – or what's left of it – is over a hundred feet long. Its wooden hull is made out of big boards and iron pegs.

It's covered by a wire fence and tin roof – but it's right in the middle of town for people to see.

And that exposure is what complicates the Ticonderoga's future.

Art Cohn is nautical archeologist with the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum.

The ship's hull is still intact. Photo: Sarah Harris
The ship's hull is still intact. Photo: Sarah Harris
"This shipwreck is totally visible and accessible to everybody, every day, which is a wonderful thing. The dilemma of course is in its present situation arguably it is not stable, it's not interpreted to its fullest value," Cohn said.

The Ticonderoga was initially built in Vergennes, Vt., Cohn says, as an early steamboat.

"It was in mid-construction when McDonough and the need to build a fleet to secure the lake to stop the British invasion required this boat to be purchased by the navy."

So the Ticonderoga was converted into a schooner. It fought in the Battle of Plattsburgh in 1814. In 1825, it was sold at auction, likely for scrap iron. It's not clear who the buyer was. But the Ticonderoga and other old war ships were kept in Whitehall long after the war. Cohn says they were in danger of sinking in the navigable channel, "So they were dragged into a backwater north of Whitehall and there they were allowed to sink."

But the Ticonderoga's story doesn't end at the bottom of Lake Champlain. In the late 1950s, a historical group from Whitehall decided to recover the ship as part of the town's bicentennial celebration.

Carol Greeno runs the Skeneborough Museum and works for the village of Whitehall. She says nobody knew much about preserving old shipwrecks at the time.

"Then we discovered – or the historical society discovered -- that it wasn't all that smart to have a wooden ship just sitting out in the weather. There was a problem that the winds and the sun were drying it out."

 So, what do you do with a 100 foot ship wreck?

Robert Neyland is a nautical archeologist with the US Navy. He says that the boat could probably benefit from a better structure and some cleaning.

"Putting a building over it that is secure but also can control the temperature and the humidity would probably help preserve it. It's probably dried out as much as it's going to dry out."

 But Neyland also says that since that boat was sold at auction, it's not the property of the navy anymore -- and they can't fund its preservation.

 The Abandoned Shipwreck Act says underwater wrecks that aren't naval property belong to the state.

But the law was passed in the eighties, long after the Ticonderoga was brought up from the bottom of Lake Champlain.

 And the New York State Historic Preservation Office says the boat doesn't belong to the state.

So far, the Whitehall historical society has sprayed the boat with a preservative and put up the roof and the fence.

 But Carol Greeno says the town and the museum can't afford to do much more.

"I can just see the dollar signs in my mind. I think we've done the best we can do to preserve her."

She says it's more important for their money to go towards the museum.

"We feel this is part of the backbone of this community, and we can't let it go. The Ticoneroga is one of the ribs."

Some money may be available through grants if Whitehall or New York state decides to further preserve the boat.

Art Cohn from the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum says he hopes it'll happen.

"As we have gotten into the bicentennial years of the war of 1812, it certainly begs the question of what might we do to better honor the history, the legacy, and the humanities connection that this boat gives us to the people from that time period."

Right now, there are no plans for the Ticonderoga. The boat will stay on the grounds of the Skenesborough Museum, doing what it's always done -- weathering storm after storm.

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