International Smuggling by Steamboat: Jahaziel’s Congress

By the Collections Team at Lake Champlain Maritime Museum

Preface: This is the seventh in a blog series about Vergennes resident and steamboat captain Jahaziel Sherman. This series is based on the Museum’s digital exhibit Jahaziel Sherman of Vergennes, Steamboat Pioneer, which is free for all to explore online. We’ll be sharing more stories on Jahaziel and his work frequently; follow us on Facebook or Instagram for the next post.

After losing Champlain to a fire at its Whitehall, New York dock in September 1817, the Lake Champlain Steamboat Company decided against investing in another steamboat. The bylaws only required one vessel in service at any time, and they still had Phoenix active on the lake (remember, Phoenix wouldn’t sink until September 1819).

However, Sherman and three other steamboat company directors (a wide-reaching partnership from Vergennes, Burlington, and Albany) were convinced that a second steamer was needed and proceeded independently to finance the next steamboat on Lake Champlain, Congress

Image: Franklin and Congress Broadside. Lake Champlain Maritime Museum Collection

Like Phoenix and Champlain, Congress was built at the Vergennes shipyard under Jahaziel’s supervision. Although its career began in 1818 with a recycled engine, Jahaziel must have upgraded the salvaged cylinder, since Congress set the record for the fastest steamboat passage from St. Johns to Whitehall (its ordinary route) under command of Richard W., Jahaziel’s oldest son, in the summer of 1819. When the Lake Champlain Steamboat Company’s Phoenix burned in early September 1819, Congress was left as the only steamer on the lake through the 1820 season. 

The Lake Champlain Steamboat Company purchased Congress shortly after the Phoenix disaster to maintain compliance with their bylaws. By the end of October 1819, the company had put out a call for ship timber to construct their next large passenger steamboat, which would be known as Phoenix II.

Image: Notice – Lake Champlain Steamboats Phoenix Congress. July 25, 1827.

Jahaziel’s arguably most scandalous years took place during Congress and Phoenix II’s early years of service. In October 1820, Bartholomew Tierney, a new Canadian Custom House officer, was appointed to the border patrol station at St. Johns. Previously, officers had looked the other way (or had been persuaded to look the other way) as the crews of Congress and Phoenix II smuggled contraband American goods into Canada in violation of Canadian revenue laws. Small-time smuggling was common at the time, which Jahaziel and Richard had dismissed as inconsequential. Officer Tierney, however, enforced the laws on his arrival, making multiple confiscations on board both Congress and Phoenix II

Tensions boiled over on August 25, 1822, when Tierney seized not only the ten packages of crapes and silks hidden in a Phoenix II locker, but also the boat itself (as the law permitted). Jahaziel first tried, unsuccessfully, to bribe Tierney, then went ashore to attempt bargaining with his supervisors. The crew took advantage of the opportunity to disarm the two guards, make steam, and race for the border. It remains unknown if the escape was part of Jahaziel’s plan. 

The fallout of this scandal did favors to no one. Jahaziel’s reputation suffered, since he appeared to either permit smuggling or to have insufficient oversight of his crews. Phoenix II was banned from entering Canadian waters, so for the remainder of the season passengers had to transfer onto Congress so they could cross the border and finish their route. Tierney’s actions also made for an uncomfortable situation for the Canadians, disrupting trade and damaging relationships between stakeholders on both sides of the border. The drama quietly subsided in spring 1823, when all threats of legal action against Phoenix II were dropped and normal operations resumed. 

Congress continued its service quietly after the smuggling episode, serving the LCSC until all steamboats were sold to the Champlain Transportation Company in the 1833 merger. Congress spent its twilight years as a fuel tender, which although not a glamorous role, was critical in supplying other steamers with the wood that kept them on the lake. Congress was a pivotal part of Jahaziel’s career, born out his confidence in the steamboat industry and the rapidly evolving transportation network linking international waterways.

Image: Champlain Transportation Company Logo. Lake Champlain Maritime Museum Collection