For centuries Lake Champlain has been a thoroughfare for history. Naval engagements helped determine the outcomes of the Revolutionary War and War of 1812. In the nineteenth century, a thriving iron industry used canal boats to transport ore down the lake and the Hudson River to Troy. And today fishing and pleasure boating strengthen the region’s economy.
In Westport lives a craftsman who for more than four decades has absorbed this history and channeled it through his hands into representations, both miniature and life size, of life on the lake. Bill Kissam is a builder of museum-quality model ships, detailed dioramas of historical scenes, and full-size watercraft.
This summer the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Vergennes, Vermont, will feature an exhibit on the history of Lake Champlain boating, displaying Bill’s models of such vessels as 1812 warships Saratoga and Confiance. The Iron Museum in Port Henry displays his diorama portraying the era when miners extracted ore from the hills. And a museum in Lyon Mountain also tells the story of iron mining with one of Bill’s dioramas, featuring a cross-section of underground mine activity beneath a surface view of the community.
“I was always into history,” says Bill. “That came first. Then I started model making to make it come alive.”
Early this spring Bill welcomed two visitors to his nineteenth-century farmhouse. After his wife, Hanna, served cake and coffee he guided them through a home that like one of his dioramas reveals delightful surprises on different levels.
A first-floor den is the design and construction studio for model ships. The fine tools arrayed on a desk haven’t been used, though, for more than a year. At eighty-three, Bill’s vision troubles him, and he has had to stop a modeling craft that requires a keen eye for detail.
“I’ve developed a little vision problem with macular degeneration. Fine work is kind of out.”
Some of the later models he completed are displayed on wall shelves, though most of his historical Lake Champlain vessels are at the maritime museum. Pointing with a pair of tweezers, he explains the rigging of a model sailing ship. Shroud lines secure a mast to the ship’s sides with wooden devices called dead eyes tightening the tension. Other lines control the sails.
These models are a long way from the kits that many of us labored over as kids. There are no pre-constructed parts that are simply matched together. There are only incomplete records of how particular historical ships were constructed, leaving Bill to use imagination and a knowledge of maritime history to make detailed design choices.
“There’s no way to know for sure,” he says. “You have to go by guess and by God. If this line runs from the top mast and is secured here, does it go through the shrouds or does it go inside of them?”
For details like this he draws on his own sense of what would work. Would this line be positioned here or would it run afoul of other lines as the ship maneuvered?
For Bill, much of the pleasure in building these models comes from researching the history of the region. He can recount the tales of battles in the War of 1812 and the role particular vessels played. He understands how sailors worked and the way function determined the form of various classes of ships.
Because of his weakening vision these days his creativity finds expression in his other passion.
“Most of my energy is upstairs in the model railroad,” he says.
From the den we climb steep stairs, push up the attic’s hatch door and enter a fabulous model-train layout.
“Welcome to the empire,” Bill announces.
Constructed on tables that fill the thirteen-by-nineteen-foot room, a network of HO-scale tracks connects landscapes drawn from the Champlain region, circa 1930s.
“It’s the Delaware and Hudson from Port Henry up to Plattsburgh. A little freelance here and there, but that’s generally the idea.”
A rail line leaves Port Henry Station, winds on its way to Westport, and runs over to Whallonsburg and then through tunnels to a second room, where it enters Saratoga Springs.
“That is a little bit misplaced,” he allows. “I do use some artistic license.”
Factual buildings, The Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga, a pulp mill in Willsboro, share the scene with those born of his imagination.
At an electronic command from Bill, the room fills with the ambient sounds of bird song and spring peepers. A locomotive huffs up to speed and moves through a tabletop landscape transmogrified by years of crafting such materials as cardboard strips, plaster gauze, foam, and glue.
It’s an act of creation that has no end. Some corner of the empire is always undergoing renovation.
“You can keep going and going and going,” says Bill.
Back at ground level Bill leads us across Lake Shore Road to a small boat barn filled to the verge of being impassable with two full-size boats and the tools he uses to work on them. One, a wooden dory powered with an inboard motor has already seen service. He uses it for “putt-putting” around the lake.
Its launch was inauspicious. The night after it was introduced to water it sank six feet to the lakebed as it was docked. It turns out the wooden construction needs to swell from soaking to seal it before launching. Now after the boat has spent a winter in storage, Bill fills it with water while on dry land. It reverse leaks as the water trickles out before the sealing is complete.
The other craft occupying the barn is a wooden rowboat. Bill has finished sealing it with fiberglass tape at the joints, and the short, wide craft needs only a paint job to be complete.
It’s a McKenzie River boat, used for fishing for steelhead or salmon in Oregon. Its squat design allows you to stand up and cast. Just the most recent challenge.
“It’s fun. It’s kind of a neat project.”