It was 1849, near Charlotte some ten miles south of the capital city of Burlington. Vermont was slowly industrializing, and the railroad was coming with the promise of connecting this perpetually rural region with the rest of the nation. To keep the railroad level enough for the primitive engines of the time, rail beds were hand-dug by large labor crews. The rocky soil and hilly terrain made work difficult.
The workmen were accustomed to finding unusual things as they made their slow progress towards Burlington. Arrowheads and pottery shards were common; bones, less so. And bones like those found one particular day had never been seen before.
As they dug through a hillside, a skull emerged from the slimy grey-blue clay. It was big, and at first the workmen thought they’d found the remains of a large horse. As they unearthed more of it, they realized they’d encountered something very different, for this horse had no legs.
Legends of a sea monster in the nearby Lake Champlain had persisted since Samuel De Champlain first explored the lake in 1609. He described a large scaly creature thrashing about near the shore, and dozens of sightings since had proven to many Vermonters and New Yorkers that something was lucking beneath the normally peaceful waters.
Work was halted and the entire skeleton was unearthed. At nearly 20 feet long, it resembled a large sea creature, though no one could explain how such an animal could have died and been buried some 250 miles from the ocean. It seemed clear that “Champ,” as the monster is now known, had been proven beyond a doubt.
Up north in Burlington, geologists were alerted to this find a team of men made the journey to Charlotte to investigate. After some assembling and reassembling, the men had a positive identification. While certainly a “monster” in terms of animals normally found in the lake, the bones were that of a creature well known to science. They belonged to a whale.
The “White Whale” or beluga is a small whale (actually a member of the porpoise family) that is well known today. A pod of these cetaceans calls the St. Lawrence Estuary 100 miles to the north home. This still didn’t explain how the whale ended up buried in Vermont… there was no outlet to the Hudson Bay into the fresh waters of Lake Champlain, and the beluga is a salt water animal.
Though they had no access to carbon dating, the scientists were able to roughly calculate the age of the bones at 11,000 years. Once this was done, the mystery was solved. 11,000 years earlier, the ice age was starting its retreat from Vermont, but Lake Champlain was actually know as the Chaplain Sea, a much larger body of water that covered Charlotte and the surrounding region. Not only that, it connected to Hudson Bay, and was salt water.
“Charlotte,” as the whale has come to be known, swam into shallow water and died, possibly near the outlet of a river. Quickly covered by silt, the carcass was protected from scavengers and left to decompose slowly, which left the bones intact. A phenomenon known as “glacial rebound,” where formerly glaciated land “springs back” after the weight of the ice is removed allowed the land in which Charlotte was buried to rise above the now lower lake level. Though she had died underwater, her bones rose some 200’ to be found by the workmen.
Today, Charlotte’s bones are visible in a glass case at the University of Vermont’s Perkins Museum. There is no admission charge.