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Lake Lit

A new book tells old stories, in pictures and prose, of the Champlain watershed


Published July 29, 2009 at 7:09 a.m.

As this summer’s Lake Champlain Quadricentennial festivities wind down, celebrants may want a more lasting way to remember the anniversary than just scrapbooking their Tony Bennett ticket stubs. Adirondack Life’s new coffee-table book, Lake Champlain: An Illustrated History, is one answer. The lavish volume chronicles human imprints across the millennia, as well as the evolution of the lake’s geology and wildlife. More than 300 images, stunning in variety and visual interest, grace the large-format book. Paintings, vintage postcards, sepia-toned photographs, brightly colored tourist brochures, antique maps and military diagrams vividly bring the half-dozen essays to life.

Burlington book designer Bill Harvey selected the artwork. He estimates he looked at more than 2000 items to choose the final 316. “There is an infinite amount of images and memorabilia and swag and everything about Lake Champlain,” he explains. “For most books, you go to one place for all the images. This book, I had to go to as many places as I could find, including individuals who were total strangers to me that I would just sort of sleuth out.” Friends and colleagues also came to him, because “people knew I was looking,” he notes.

Harvey put his favorite find on the title page. Ralph Nading Hill (1917-87), the lake’s most famous historian, swims in its waters. He’s about 13 years old, so the photo (ca. 1930) shows a young teen surrounded — literally — by what would become his life’s work. Hill’s great-nephew, Tony Shaw, provided the pic, part of a wealth of archival material that he inherited and made available to his friend, Harvey.

The designer also treasures the early 1950s family photo of Patrick Leahy that accompanies the senator’s foreword to the book. Harvey says he “wanted something that was so personal … that would mean so much more” than a standard political portrait. In a snapshot taken by Leahy’s mother, the bespectacled teen kneels on shore beside the fabled steamboat Ticonderoga, during one of its last working seasons.

Harvey was first approached about the project three years ago by an editor with whom he’d collaborated previously, Julie Stillman. His initial response was “Quadri-what?,” he remembers with a laugh. “We wanted the book to have a broad appeal to people who were either coming here, who had been here, or would want to come here — wanted to live vicariously through this book as armchair travelers,” he continues. Harvey and Stillman sought to marry essays and images so readers could “open it up and jump in anywhere, and find things that were interesting and fascinating visually and in terms of words,” Harvey says.

Mission accomplished. Tom Henry’s bracing tour of “Towns Along the Lake” launches the volume with some of its liveliest writing. Two-page spreads highlight each of the principal shoreline burgs. “Prospecting for iron in Moriah is as easy as passing a magnet over a fistful of beach sand — a child can top off a toy train with eroded flakes in minutes,” Henry writes. A postcard of the iron furnace — “state of the art for 1875,” the caption explains — shows lanky gray smokestacks and angular red brick buildings.

Brisk prose also distinguishes Mark Bushnell’s closing essay, “Sports and Play on Lake Champlain.” A picture of wood-and-leather ice skates accompanies anecdotes of 19th-century midwinter derring-do (see excerpt). Bushnell’s chapter neatly caps one of the book’s major themes: how the lake’s role has shifted since Samuel de Champlain arrived. Two centuries of military conflict and a century and a half of bustling commerce preceded the present-day focus on recreation, tourism and environmental concerns.

Some of the best illustrations of daily life came from an unexpected source in Maine. “The Penobscot Marine Museum had acquired this rather huge archive of glass-plate negatives” from a defunct New England postcard company, Harvey recalls. They languished in “a very dusty box, I would imagine. But in order to see what they had, I had to get them scanned.” Harvey paid for a few hundred scans, but admits he was “shooting in the dark.”

The results? A delightful shot of kids playing volleyball at a camp in Malletts Bay (ca. 1930). Nineteenth-century gems from Essex, N.Y.: an interior of The Old Dock Tavern and a rare photo of one of the last sailing canal schooners. Glass negatives yield images that are “just crystal clear, the most spectacular things you’ve ever seen in your life,” Harvey enthuses.

Producing such an image-heavy volume is a lengthy process. It took two years to create the concept, sell it to a publisher and organize the team of writers and researchers.

Stillman and Harvey faced an additional hurdle. “We realized that to make such a very elaborate publication about what is a small region, we would need some supplemental funding,” Harvey explains. They enlisted individuals, businesses and foundations, ultimately landing the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center as a major contributor (and co-copyright holder on the finished book).

The biggest obstacle came, however, when Stillman suffered a serious health crisis in early 2008, just as the heaviest work got under way. Harvey reluctantly took the reins and brought in Mike MacCaskey as the new editor. The volume is dedicated to Stillman, “whose vision, imagination and love of the lake lit the spark that set us all in motion.”

The book itself certainly inspires love for the lake by expanding our knowledge of its colorful past. It may even spark our imaginations as we envision the next chapter to be written between now and the, gulp, quincentennial.