Between 1840 and 1860, a great wave of Irish immigrants washed up on the shores of Lake Champlain. So many, in fact, that Vermont’s inland sea has been nicknamed the Irish Lake.
The reason, of course, was hunger and jobs. Though Irish Catholics had started arriving in Vermont in 1820, Champlain didn’t become the Irish lake until the potato famine of the mid-1840s.
They landed mostly in Burlington, which in 1850 had an Irish population of 30 percent. Tiny Georgia was 27 percent Irish that year – all young men, working on the railroad. Rutland had so many Irish the public school was called the Catholic school until as late as the 1920s.
In 1832, Nathaniel Hawthorne visited Burlington and published a sketch of the young city. He noted “the great number of Irish emigrants” to be found there. They were everywhere: “lounging” around the wharves, “swarming in huts and mean dwellings near the lake,” and “elbow[ing] the native citizens” out of work.
The Irish Lake
Some Protestant Irish and Scots-Irish came down the Irish lake in the 18th century. Then in 1815 the Napoleonic wars ended, which caused an agricultural recession in Ireland. Irish farmers had done well during the wars supplying the British army with beef.
Times got hard for the farmers then, because the rise of textile mills meant they couldn’t supplement their incomes with homespun cloth.
The British government also wanted to populate the vast Canadian territory. So it imposed a heavy tariff on ships headed for the United States – where the Irish really wanted to go. And ships bound for Canada were only taxed lightly.
The Irish two-boater resulted from the cheaper fare to Canada – an Irish immigrant who first sailed to Canada, then came to the United States.
By 1830, the British army wouldn’t post any Irish soldiers close to the United States because so many deserted and jumped the border. Irish Catholics had already started coming down the Irish lake by steamboat from Canada to help build the Champlain canal.
Work on the canal, on railroads and in textile mills attracted Irish immigrants. Young women could get decent wages as domestic servants, and men with strong backs could find work in the quarries of Barre, Fair Haven, West Rutland, West Castleton and Proctor.
The first arrivals sent letters home to their families, telling them they could do well in the United States if they worked hard.
They’d leave Liverpool or Queenstown (now Cobh), Dublin or Sligo or Galway and arrive weeks later in Halifax or Quebec. Then from Quebec they’d take steamships down the Irish lake to ports of entry in Vermont. Burlington even had a customs house.
By 1830, 11 percent of the 3526 people in Burlington were Irish – so many that the bishop of Boston sent an Irish priest, Jeremiah O’Callaghan, to the city. He built St. Mary’s church in St. Albans, the first Catholic church in Vermont, St. Mary’s, in St. Albans in 1833.
By 1831, many of the Irish who arrived in Quebec on the famine ships had cholera. They had to stop at the quarantine station in Grosse Isle. Vermont authorities printed posters that said anyone with the disease couldn’t land on the shores of Lake Champlain.
In 1845, the potato crop failed, and then in 1846 it failed again. Two successive years of crop failure caused famine, which is how the year 1847 got the nickname Black 47. That spring the massive migration began, with slightly more Irish headed to Canada than to the United States.
The staff and facilities at Grosse Isle couldn’t handle the sudden influx of Irish immigrants, many of whom had come down with typhus. Neglected for days, 5,000 died in horrific surroundings. Grosse Ile today has the largest burial ground for famine refugees outside of Ireland.
Many of those who survived came down the Irish lake to settle. On the New York side of Lake Champlain, by 1850 Plattsburg was 15 percent Irish, Essex eight percent and Ticonderoga nine percent. On the Vermont side, Swanton was 16 percent Irish, St. Albans 17.5 percent and Middlebury 15 percent. Nearly one in three residents of Burlington had Irish ancestry.
The famine wave down the Irish lake continued until 1860, when the Civil War broke out. Many Irish immigrants served in the Union Army. Vermont’s population continued to grow, and the Irish assimilated, making their presence less noticeable.
But from 1840-1860, the Irish comprised the largest ethnic minority in the state, thanks to the Irish lake.
With thanks to Vincent Feeney, When Champlain Was an Irish Lake. Photo of Lake Champlain by By Hbbrown18 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48446678. This story was updated in 2023.