The oldest intact museum vessel in North America resides on the National Mall in Washington, DC, tucked away in the East Wing of the Museum of American History’s 3rd Floor. Named Philadelphia, she is a salvaged wreck, raised from the bottom of Lake Champlain in 1935 after being lost for 159 years. She is the oldest intact American fighting vessel.
Philadelphia was one of eight gundalows hastily built to deny the British access to the upper waters of the Hudson River. Based roughly on lake barges, the design was quaint; only 53’ long and displacing 29 tons, the boat drew only two feet of water and yet was somehow crewed by several dozen men. Three main guns were fitted, with one 12-pounded at the bow and one 9-pounder situated on each broadside. Eight small swivel guns added close-range punch. Propulsion was managed by a sail and topsail on a single mast forward. Her general configuration and small size can be seen in photos 1-6, which start at the port bow and work around to amidships on the starboard side; the two 9-pounders should be used as a point of reference. The model in photo 6 shows her as she was in 1776.
Philadelphia was in service for about a month and a half before meeting her end in the Battle of Valcour Island on 11 October 1776, in which a fleet of pre-fabricated British ships overpowered 15 rag-tag American vessels intent on slowing the transport of British troops south. Philadelphia was holed on her starboard bow by a 24-pound shot, visible in photos 1, 2, and 7, which caused her to eventually succumb to flooding as depicted in the painting. The remnants of the rebel fleet slipped away in the night, went ashore and made for Fort Ticonderoga after burning their boats and Fort Crown Point. The British were forced to abandon their southern trek as winter loomed.
Philadelphia was given over to the Smithsonian in 1961 after two other salvaged wrecks were not preserved as promised. Of note: the “admiral” of this little fleet that fought off Valcour Island was General Benedict Arnold.