“It is very common for sleighs, horses and men to fall through the ice, where the water is about a hundred feet deep; and you are only warned of your danger when the horses have arrived, pulling the sleigh after them. – Hugh Gray, writing on Lake Champlain in 1808
Fears invade the 19thandspirit of the last century. Fear of childhood illnesses, which cause so many offspring that parents fear becoming too attached to their children; fear of deadly epidemics that killed young and old, and which were so mysterious that they seemed almost biblical; and fear among many that there was little hope of avoiding eternal damnation.
But at this time of fears, we must add another: the fear of crossing the ice.
Early histories of Vermont towns are full of stories of drownings. Read some of these stories and you will get the impression that these people must have taken little for granted. Death could come so suddenly.
Take the case of Myron Newell from Charlotte. In February 1810, Newell drove a sleigh and team of horses across Lake Champlain to Essex, NY, to do business. When he did not return home that night, his family was understandably alarmed. They searched the shoreline and presumably the lake ice, but found nothing.
A month passed without anyone knowing anything of Newell’s fate. Then a young man from the city dreamed that he knew where to find Newell. He led searchers to a spot on the ice, a short distance from the Vermont coast, and there they found part of the sled. Looking further, they made a gruesome discovery. At the bottom of the lake, they found the rest of the sled, with the horses still tied, and Newell’s body, still holding the reins. Friends speculated that he got lost and led the team into an opening in the ice.
During the same period, a young man named William Hickok was skating with a friend on Lake Champlain halfway between Burlington Harbor and Shelburne Point. The pair slipped through a hole in the ice, and that was the last time anyone saw them.
Dennison Sargent of Woodstock worked at a factory in Warren. One morning, while cutting the ice from the waterwheel, someone lifted the dam gate and Sargent was swept under the waterwheel, into the gutter, and under the ice under the mill. Later, when his absence was noticed, Sargent’s body was found under the ice.
At Brookfield in 1810, a man named Belknap drowned because he didn’t listen to his friends who said the ice on Colts Pond wasn’t strong enough to hold him down. He tried to cross anyway. To his surprise, but not theirs, he dove to his death. The accident is said to have triggered the construction of the village’s famous pontoon bridge.
Such drownings were more common then, but not because people were less intelligent; we still have plenty of people today who would ignore the warnings and do exactly what Belknap did. It’s just that a lot fewer people knew how to swim back then. At that time, knowing how to swim was an unusual trait, even among sailors.
Bumpy roads or smooth ice?
Town stories tell of people drowning while performing physically dangerous work, such as driving log drives, after destroying wells, and, apparently most often, while bathing in rivers or streams.
But factors other than the inability to swim likely triggered drownings under the ice. Seemingly solid patches of ice must have been an attractive shortcut – much quicker than following the rough and often snowy roads of the day. Anyone traveling along Lake Champlain, or any of the other large lakes and ponds in the state, must have been tempted to risk it. Indeed, many stories of drownings came from the Champlain Islands, where people had no other way to get to the mainland in winter than to brave the ice.
The islands’ strangest story of a winter drowning, however, involved a man who had no interest in crossing the ice. The story, which appeared in the Vermont Historical Gazetteer in the 1870s, tells the story of a man named John Griggs, who nearly a century earlier was embroiled in a bitter land dispute in Alburgh.
Things got so bad that in 1786 a detachment, supposedly sent by local resident Ebenezer Allen (cousin of Ethan and Ira Allen), ambushed Griggs and a friend. The friend was shot in the leg and disabled for life. Griggs escaped unharmed, apparently because the party members were too drunk to capture him.
The feud erupted again in 1799. This time a party led by a St. Albans deputy sheriff succeeded in capturing Griggs. Posse members tied him up, placed him in a sled, and drove him south across the frozen lake toward St. Albans. But halfway, the sled pierced the ice. All the men managed to free themselves – all except Griggs, who drowned, as his hands were tied.
Hang the horses
Hugh Gray, a visitor from England, drove a sled from Canada to Vermont on the lake and lived to write about it. Gray describes the experience of “travelling over a flat surface of ice in very cold weather” as a mixture of dread and boredom. “Curiosity freezes under such circumstances, and the only prospect which awakens attention is the inn, or the village, which must offer the comfort of food and fire”, he wrote in a book entitled “Letters from Canada”.
Despite the boredom, Gray wrote that “
A sled crossing the ice was “very common,” he noted. But on the bright side, the area of thin ice is usually not too big. Once you pull yourself out of the sled, he explained, “you find the ice is usually strong enough to support you.”
Unfortunately, it was generally not strong enough to support horses. To save them, writes Gray, you almost have to kill them.
“When horses fall through the ice…the struggles and strains they make only serve to hurt and sink them; for them to get out… themselves is, by the nature of the thing, utterly impossible.
Thus, before leaving, experienced sled drivers would tie a kind of noose around the neck of each horse. “As the ice breaks and the horses sink into the water, the driver and those of the sleigh come down and grab the ropes, pull them with all their might, which in a very few seconds strangles the horses and as soon as this happens they rise in the water, float to one side, are pulled over solid ice, the noose is loosened and breathing begins again.
Gray claimed that horses that have experienced this kind of resurrection “get so used to being hanged that they don’t give a damn about it.” But that particular technique didn’t always work, he noted: “Sometimes the sled and the horses go to the bottom; and men too, if they can’t get out in time.
Such a disaster occurred days before Gray’s trip to Lake Champlain. And it almost happened to him.
As he drove south, he saw a 5-foot-wide gap in the ice ahead of him. Having no time to master the horses, the driver urged them to run faster. “The horses jumped out,” Gray wrote, “and cleared the opening, carrying the sleigh and its contents with them.”