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A Tale of Two Ships- The Continental Gunboat Philadelphia: Triumph and Tragedy on Lake Champlain

By James P. Millard

The quintessential warship built for service on the lake,
the Continental Gondola Philadelphia has a remarkable tale to tell...

Click on the thumbnails below to see a larger image. Reminder: all images are copyright protected.

Hurriedly constructed at the shipyard in Skenesborough, Benedict Arnold's fleet of Gunboats or Gundalos, as they were called at the time, were the perfect vessels for the defense of the lake. Flat-bottomed, typically some 53' long with a 15.5' beam, they could easily navigate in the furthest reaches of Lake Champlain.1 Though equipped with a square sail and topsail on one mast, the key to the Gundola's navigability were its sweeps or oars. A daunting task for its hardy crew of 45, the small gunboats easily went wherever they were required, largely due to this ability to row.

The Philadelphia was launched in August 1776, and within two months was sunk during the Battle of Valcour. There, in the narrow confines of Valcour Bay, she remained, sitting upright in the cold waters of the lake until August 9th, 1935.

Colonel Lorenzo F. Hagglund, a professional diver and salvage engineer, found and raised the priceless treasure from the depths of the bay. The ship was a veritable time capsule- Hagglund and his team were stunned at what they found. In his wonderful work about the raising of the gunboat, A Page from the Past, Col. Hagglund wrote of an intact Revolutionary War vessel. Aboard the ship were many of the crew's personal possessions- kettles, cups and eating utensils, chests, medicine bottles, an hour glass, even leather shoes with silver and bronze buckles. Also found were all the necessary implements of war- the cannons and swivel guns,  some 55 cannon balls and shot, quoins for aiming the guns, shot gauges and touch-hole covers.  The very ball that sunk the ship- a 24 pounder- was still embedded in the bow gun deck (see photo).2

Fortunately for all of us today, the Philadelphia did not suffer the fate of so many other shipwrecks that were "salvaged" from the protective waters of the lake. After some 25 years traveling the lake on display the priceless vessel was bequeathed to the nation's Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. There she can be seen to this day, seen by millions of visitors in a wonderful state of preservation.

As wonderful as it is to have the Philadelphia on display in Washington, there are limitations to what an original artifact can tell us. Rarely can a priceless original be refitted safely enough to be used once again without damaging it. In 1989 a dedicated team of professionals under the direction of Art Cohn and the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum undertook a truly amazing feat- they would build, launch and operate an exact replica of the Philadelphia! With the blessing of the Smithsonian, the assistance of the Vermont Council on the Humanities, and an incredibly dedicated group of professional boat builders and volunteers, the gunboat was finally launched in August 1991.3

Over the next two years, the Philadelphia II plied the waters of Lake Champlain. In her journeys from Basin Harbor, the Philadelphia II has returned to the place where her namesake was built, Whitehall, NY, formerly Skenesborough. She has visited St. Jean, Quebec; where the British constructed the fleet that sunk the original Philadelphia. She has visited communities up and down the lake, in New York and Vermont. Of course, she has been to Valcour Island, scene of the dreadful first phase of the Battle of Lake Champlain.

A trip to the Philadelphia is an education indeed. Whether one visits the ship at her berth in North Harbor, or is fortunate enough to be aboard on one of her (now rare) expeditions, there is so much to be learned. This author was struck foremost by the size of the vessel and the fact that 43 men- Arnold's "wretched, motley crew"- lived aboard this ship and others like it for months at a time. Life aboard the ship must have been simply horrid- days and weeks of cold, damp discomfort- together with the occasional horror of battle. As Ed Scollon of the Valcour Bay Research Project so aptly put it, these men had the "conviction and stand, not only before the guns of an enemy, but behind that of their own."

We here at America's Historic Lakes are grateful to the many unsung heroes who served aboard the Philadelphia and her sister ships. Whether we are gazing upon the original Gunboat in her stately repose at the Smithsonian or upon the living, seemingly breathing replica at berth in Basin Harbor, we are grateful also to the many dedicated individuals who have worked so hard to preserve this history for us to learn from today...


You can see the Continental Gunboat Philadelphia II on display at The Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Basin Harbor Vermont. To visit the Maritime Museum's web page click HERE.


1Russell P. Bellico. "SAILS AND STEAM IN THE MOUNTAINS- A Maritime and Military History of Lake George and Lake Champlain." Fleischmanns, New York: Purple Mountain Press, Ltd. 1992, 138.

2Lorenzo F. Hagglund. "A PAGE FROM THE PAST- The Story of the Continental Gondola Philadelphia." Whitehall, New York: The Whitehall Times. 1936, 19-22.

3Ralph Nading Hill.  LAKE CHAMPLAIN- Key to Liberty. Shelburne, Vermont: Shelburne Museum and The Countryman Press.  Second Edition. 1995, 294-296.

Related pages on the Site...
The Battle of Lake Champlain (Introduction)
Orders of Battle- the forces involved

Valcour Island- Scene of The Battle of Lake Champlain
Arnold's Bay- Panton, Vermont
Lieut. James Hadden's Account of the Battle of Lake Champlain: An eyewitness account of the extraordinary events on Lake Champlain between October 11-13, 1776

The Philadelphia II at her berth in Basin Harbor, home of the
Lake Champlain Maritime Museum.

Another view of the Philadelphia II in Basin Harbor.



Photos courtesy of Jerry Forkey
Rabble in Arms...
The Philadelphia II
in action at Basin Harbor.


Roger Harwood photo

The bow of the Philadelphia II and the original at the Smithsonian.

The Philadelphia II together with an authentic replica of a bateau.

Jerry Forkey photo

The crew ready the 12-pounder bow cannon for firing.


Jerry Forkey photo

One of the Philadelphia II's
9- pounders.


Roger Harwood photo

The Philadelphia had 9-pounder cannons and a number of swivel guns.



Roger Harwood photo

The stern of the Philadelphia II and the original gunboat.

Swivel gun on the Continental Gunboat Philadelphia, on display at the Museum of  American History, Smithsonian. Photo credit: Roger Harwood



Roger Harwood photos

View of a 9-pounder and a swivel gun from the original Philadelphia.



Roger Harwood photos

Views of the original Philadelphia's bow, showing the 12-pounder cannon and anchor.



Replica and original still fascinate visitors.

Roger Harwood photo

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