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Lake Champlain, The Sixth Great Lake?

Dateline: 03/02/98 (Rev. 03/30/98)

Matt's note: The President of the United States signed Senate Bill 927 and it became Public Law 105-160 on March 6, 1998. Therefore, Lake Champlain is now the sixth Great Lake.

Additional note: Due to the wording in the law, "The term `Great Lakes' includes Lake Champlain," and its location in the "definitions" section of the law may indicate that Lake Champlain is not really designated as a Great Lake but only for the purposes of this act.

Lake Champlain, located on the border of Vermont and New York and entending a few miles into Canada, is on the verge of greatness. Senate Bill 927, which reauthorizes the Sea Grant program, has been passed by the Senate and is expected to be signed by the President within the next few days. The bill not only provides funds for educational purposes but it also officially designates Lake Champlain as the sixth Great Lake.

We don't know whether this designation will change people's perception of the Great Lakes but since this tiny lake is going to officially join the ranks of Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario, it's best to learn a bit about it.

The 121 mile long lake was first visited by Europeans in 1609 when the French explorer Samuel de Champlain, along with indigenous Americans he had established trading relationship with, encountered the Iroquois near the lake. This contact started a feud between the French and Iroquois that lasted almost 100 years.

Lying along the Richelieu River, Lake Champlain's surface area of about 435 square miles pales in comparison to the five original Great Lakes. Lake Superior is the second largest lake in the world with 31,700 mi2. Lake Huron has 23,00 mi2, Michigan is 22,300 mi2, Erie is 9,910 mi2, and Ontario is 7,340 mimi2. The primary reason this tiny lake is being designated as a Great Lake is to provide Vermont with financial support for research and educational about Lake Champlain.

The water in Lake Champlain flows from south to north, and is located along the Richelieu River (which connects the lake to the Saint Lawrence River). When Vermonters or New Yorkers refer to a place being "up Champlain," they mean down south. The Champlain Valley (and the river) is located between the Adirondack Mountains of New York and the Green Mountains of Vermont.

A canal completed in 1823 connected the lake to the Hudson River (and therefore the Atlantic Ocean). The canal completely changed the commerce of the valley surrounding the lake. The world's second steamship, the Vermont was put into service on Lake Champlain in 1808, just one year after Robert Fulton's ship the Clairmont made its maiden voyage on the Hudson between New York City and Albany.

Vermont's four principal rivers: Otter Creek (the longest in the tiny state), Lamoille, Missisquoi, and Winooski all flow into Lake Champlain. There are about 80 islands in this lake which is shaped like a "malformed carrot" (Van de Water, 22).

Burlington is Vermont's largest city (a population of 39,000) and is located on the eastern shore of the lake. Burlington is almost five times as large as the state capital, Montpelier (population 8,200) and encompasses a large share of entire "Green Mountain" state's population (563,000).

While supporters of the five original Great Lakes may not share the Senate's enthusiasm for this change, it might take some time to see how this bureaucratic designation effects the perception of North Americans.

Share your thoughts about the sixth Great Lake and other topics on the Geography Bulletin Board

For More Information

Please visit the Vermont and New York sections of the World Atlas.

Ashworth, William. The Late, Great Lakes. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986.

Bearse, Ray Ed. Vermont: A Guide to the Green Mountain State. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966.

"Lake Champlain." Microsoft Encarta 1998 Encyclopedia.

Van de Water, Frederic. Lake Champlain and Lake George. New York: Ira J. Friedman, Inc., 1969.

World Almanac and Book of Facts 1998

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