By the Collections team at Lake Champlain Maritime Museum
Preface: This is the fourth 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 every other week; follow us on Facebook or Instagram for the next post.
For the first twenty years of his maritime career, Jahaziel lived in the Albany area. He had enjoyed captaining sloops on the Hudson River until the arrival of the newly invented steamboat in 1807. Attracted by the lucrative and novel steamship business, Jahaziel became a steamboat captain, and teamed up the with investors who were organizing the Lake Champlain Steamboat Company. In 1813, Jahaziel, Nancy Winslow, and their children moved to Vergennes, where the Company established a shipyard on Otter Creek. Based on his prior experience building and captaining, Jahaziel became the company’s general manager and construction supervisor, and hired master carpenter John Lacy to begin work on his first steamboat, to be named Ticonderoga.
However the War of 1812 intervened. The incomplete hull of Jahaziel’s first steamboat was purchased by the U. S. Navy and finished by shipwrights Noah and Adam Brown as the armed sloop of war Ticonderoga for the Lake Champlain fleet commanded by Commodore Thomas Macdonough. American forces occupied the shipyard to construct the rest of the American naval fleet.
Seven miles downstream, the mouth of Otter Creek was fortified with defensive earthworks and seven 12-pound cannon ship carriages to protect the Vergennes shipyard from British invaders. This location would later be known as Fort Cassin, in honor of American Naval Lieutenant Stephen Cassin who led the defense of the site along with an assortment of artillerymen and militia troops.
The fortifications were prudent. On May 9, 1814, while Jahaziel’s Ticonderoga was still on the hard being completed as a sixteen-gun schooner, a British navy squadron (comprised of British Captain Daniel Pring’s brig Linnet, five sloops, and thirteen galleys) sailed onto the lake. After an attack on McNeil’s ferry at Charlotte, the British fired on Fort Cassin for an hour and a half, upending one of the guns and injuring two men. However, the battery’s defenders inflicted sufficient damage on the British galleys so that the attackers withdrew, and construction at Otter Creek continued without incident.
On May 26, Macdonough’s converted steamboat Ticonderoga left the shipyard together with the 26-gun boat Saratoga. Over the summer, the remaining vessels of Macdonough’s fleet assembled on the lake, ready for the decisive encounter at Plattsburgh Bay in September.
The Battle of Plattsburgh on September 11, 1814 engaged the largest warships ever to sail on Lake Champlain, and Jahaziel’s converted steamer was right in the middle of the action (Learn more about this naval battle in our War of 1812 history overview).
Late in the battle, British gunboats concentrated on Ticonderoga. Lake Champlain historian Ralph Nading Hill recounts, “Walking her decks in a blizzard of shot, Lt. Cassin, her commander, ordered that her guns be loaded with canister and bags of musket balls. When Midshipman Hiram Paulding found he could not discharge the guns under his supervision because of faulty matches, he resourcefully touched them off by firing his pistol at them. Thus the Ticonderoga was able to hold her end of the line.” The battle ended in American victory.
The Battle of Plattsburgh was one of the final naval engagements of the War of 1812. The Treaty of Ghent was signed in December of 1814, and finalized on February 16, 1815, marking the end of the 200-year era of warfare on the lake. Both the United States and Canada emerged from the war with an increased sense of national identity. Peace returned to the Champlain Valley, and an era of growth and prosperity – and, happily for Jahaziel, economic development – began.
Jahaziel didn’t wait long to start construction of his next steamer. The Lake Champlain Steamboat Company was required by the New York Legislature to have an operational steamboat within 18 months of incorporation, so as the War of 1812 ended, Jahaziel hired shipwright Edward Roberts, who had worked with Noah and Adam Brown on the naval fleet, to begin construction of the steamboat Phoenix at the Otter Creek shipyard.
And what happened to the Ticonderoga? At the end of the War of 1812, the U. S. Naval fleet was moved to Whitehall to await future need. Some of the vessels were purchased at auction to become commercial vessels in the renewed flow of trade, while those that were no longer seaworthy, including Ticonderoga, gradually sank to the bottom of the South Lake Champlain (commonly referred to as “South Lake”). Raised as a historic relic in 1959, Ticonderoga’s archaeological remains are on view at Whitehall, NY.
The Museum continues to study Jahaziel’s first steamboat. In 2018, we received a grant from the South Lake Champlain Fund to initiate digitization of collections related to the region’s history. Ticonderoga, an important shipwreck from the South Lake, was one of the sites included in the study.
You can explore more of our South Lake Champlain Project research in the digital exhibit about Ell Rockwell, another steamboat captain on the lake who was active for several decades after Jahaziel’s time.
This blog series and digital exhibit are based on research by Kevin Crisman, George Schwartz, Caroline Kennedy, and museum staff members Eloise Beil, Patricia Reid, and Chris Sabick. This project was supported by a 2019 Collections Grant from the Champlain Valley National Heritage Partnership.