It may be Lake Champlain's best kept secret: a sunken Revolution War gunboat lying on the bottom of the lake for the past 231 years.
Only a handful of people know where it's at. The boat is in one of the deepest parts of the lake, beyond the depths of most divers.
"It fell as if it was still sailing," said Art Cohn with the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. "We see artifacts showing in some places. We know there are dozens, hundreds, thousands of artifacts contained under the mud."
The Spitfire was sunk by the British at the Battle of Valcour Island, one of eight identical boats that held off the British advance from Canada.
"All of them were accounted for, either captured, sunk or burned, except for the Spitfire," said Rich Isenberg with the Maritime Museum.
The Spitfire's sister ship, the Philadelphia, is the only ship in the Benedict Arnold fleet to be recovered. It was removed from the lake in 1935, and is now at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. A full-sized replica is on display at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Ferrisburgh.
"The Philadelphia actually made out remarkably well," Isenberg said. "There were many other shipwrecks around the lake that did not make out as well as the Philadelphia."
Earlier this month the Spitfire was added to the National Register of Historical Places. The museum now hopes to receive a $147,000 grant to help determine the best way to preserve the ship.
"Zebra mussels will encrust this boat because it's in deep water, and that will have very negative consequences to the stability of this site," Cohn said.
Those options include removing the boat from the lake, a task that would likely cost tens of millions of dollars.
"Dozens of historical vessels have been recovered from the water," Cohn said. "Almost all of them end in disaster."
The ship would have to be treated, and removing it may not be the cheapest option on the table. But it's one the museum will consider as it attempts to preserve it for future generations.
"This boat is part of the American story," Cohn said.
The museum hopes the studies will be completed by 2009. Other possibilities include burying the boat in mud to better preserve it, or encapsulating the boat in an aquarium at the bottom of the lake, equipped with lights and cameras.
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