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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. (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.

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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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Lois McClure is a replica of an 1862 canal schooner that's also a floating museum. This summer she - that is the canal schooner - is sailing around the Northeast, docking in towns for a history lesson. North Country Public Radio's Sarah Harris climbed on board.

SARAH HARRIS, BYLINE: Tom, can you explain what we're doing?

TOM LARSEN: Hauling out to a mooring and then we'll have the tug boat come along side us where it's deep enough water.

HARRIS: First mate Tom Larsen is a strapping guy with a long ponytail and glasses. He's pulling hand-over-hand on a thick white rope, getting the Lois onto the water for a four-month voyage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TUGBOAT)

HARRIS: The tugboat ties up to the Lois and we head out on Lake Champlain. Art Cohn, cofounder of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, says canal schooners like the Lois McClure were basically the 18-wheelers of their day. They were sailboats that could also be towed through the canal systems.

ART COHN: These boats were blue collar, work-a-day trucks from their generation.

HARRIS: 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 museum divers found a canal schooner wreck on the bottom of Lake Champlain. They decided to build a replica and take it on tour.

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

HARRIS: Crew member Len Ruth says that says working on the boat makes that history very real.

LEN RUTH: Just feeling what it was like for the people who lived on these boats and 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.

HARRIS: We spend the night on the boat, and the next morning, the crew gets ready for work. It's chilly and pouring rain but no one's really complaining. Up on deck, Len's wearing waders. His raincoat is pulled all the way down over his glasses. He says canal boat sailors from 1862 probably had weather just like this.

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

HARRIS: We chug south to the Champlain Canal.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCHOONER MOVING)

HARRIS: It's a narrow passage with high concrete walls. The water slowly rises beneath us and the gates swing open.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You guys can go out ahead of us and then once we get out of the lock and start over toward the dock, you can make up on the port bow.

HARRIS: We tie up outside the local history museum. The crew gets ready for visitors, who will learn about a journey not too different than this one. Sarah Harris, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLOOP JOHN B")

BEACH BOYS: (Singing) We come on the sloop John B, my grandfather and me. Around Nassau town we did roam...

SIMON: Thanks, Beach Boys. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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