The Phoenix, built by the Lake Champlain Steamboat Company and launched in 1815, was the second commercial steamboat on Lake Champlain. The steamer, commanded by Captain Jahaziel Sherman, maintained a regular schedule between Whitehall, NY and St. Johns, Quebec, with stops at other lake ports along the route.
Above: Line drawing of Steamboat Phoenix. Below: Painting depicting the Steamboat Phoenix fire by Ernie Haas
September 4, 1819: The Fire
At 11:00 P.M. on September 4, 1819, the Phoenix left Burlington for Plattsburgh, NY, with 46 passengers and crew, under the command of Captain Sherman’s son, Richard. An unusual glow in the amidships galley provided the first warning that a fire had broken out on board, but the discovery was made too late to save the Phoenix. The passengers were roused from their cabins and loaded into two small boats. Unfortunately, in the confusion, a dozen people (including the captain) were left to fend for themselves on the burning ship.
Sherman and several others were rescued from the Lake in the morning but six others were not so lucky and perished in the Lake’s cold, dark waters. The cause of the fire was said to have been a candle carelessly left burning in the pantry; however, circumstantial evidence suggests that the fire may have been intentionally set by competing lake sailing interests.
Rediscovery of the Hull
During the winter of 1819-20, the charred hull remains of Phoenix were trapped in ice and dragged partially off Colchester Shoal. The wreck was not rediscovered by scuba divers and researchers until 1978. The first archaeological documentation of Phoenix took place in 1980 by a team from the Champlain Maritime Society, a predecessor to the Museum.
In 1982 Phoenix was incorporated into the Vermont Underwater Historic Preserves and 1998 the hull remains were listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
Discovery and Identification of the Paddlewheels
Until the late summer of 2020, it was assumed that the charred hull remains were all that was left of steamboat Phoenix and that all other parts, including the two iconic paddlewheels, were lost to the fire.
On August 28, 2020, Gary Lefebvre, a local shipwreck researcher, performed a dive nearby Colchester Shoal with his Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) on a curious sonar target he had located earlier. Lefebvre recorded a video of the structure that he had located in 180 feet of water and sent a short clip to our Director of Research and Archaeology, Chris Sabick who confirmed that it appeared to be the paddlewheel assembly from an early sidewheel steamboat. After conferring with Lefebvre about location of his find (about 3⁄4 of a mile north of Colchester Shoal) he began to suspect that it might be a paddlewheel from Phoenix. Upon review of a longer video clip, evidence of extensive charring was noted and the connection to Phoenix became more obvious. After reviewing with other experts, Dr. George Schwarz and Dr. Kevin Crisman of Texas A&M University, they agreed that based on the construction of the paddlewheel, its location in relation to the Phoenix hull remains, and the presence of extensive charring this was a paddlewheel from Phoenix. This prompted a targeted search for the other paddlewheel in the hopes that it was somewhere nearby. Three days later, Lefebvre located a second charred paddlewheel just 100 meters south of the first.
On September 6, 2020, almost exactly 201 years after Phoenix’s tragic fire, two technical divers carried out a dive on the paddlewheels to record video documentation and several measurements which will aid in further research and understanding.
Learn more about this important discovery and Phoenix in this report, commissioned by the Champlain Valley National Heritage Partnership:
Features of Interest
- Size of wreck: 146′ long, 27′ wide.
- The fire-charred framing ends and massive hull are clearly visible.
- The bow is prominent, jutting 15′ off the bottom.
- The rudder hardware is visible at the stern.
- The iron rods which held the engines and boilers are visible.
- Experience level: Advanced.
- Depth of water: 60′ (bow)–110′ (stern).
- The anchor pad to the preserve buoy rests at approximately 50′ depth.
- The depth and location on the open lake requires serious dive planning.
- Monitor your depth and air and watch for changing weather.
- Underwater lights are necessary.
- Steep angle of the wreck can be disorienting.
- PHOENIX IS A DEEP DIVE
- WATCH YOUR DEPTH AND TIME
- MONITOR YOUR AIR
- 44 32′ 57.987″N 073 20′ 05.168″W
- On the northern face of Colchester Shoal reef.