By the Collections Team at Lake Champlain Maritime Museum
Preface: This is the third 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.
Jahaziel’s work on the water was an important part of his career, but he was an active landlubber as well. In addition to constructing and managing six Lake Champlain steamboats, Jahaziel also pursued real estate, railroad, and political ventures in the region.
Jahaziel’s first and only home in the Champlain Valley was Vergennes, and Vermont’s “Smallest City” always held a special place in his heart. He kept Vergennes in mind in all his business endeavors – both waterborne and shoreside.
Otter Creek provided both waterpower and transportation for the City of Vergennes. Jahaziel Sherman owned extensive property on Arsenal Street (now Macdonough Drive) overlooking his wharf and warehouses along the creek. In 1853, these waterfront properties were marked with the names of his wife, “Mrs. Sherman,” and his son “J. Sherman” (Jahaziel Blossom Sherman).
This waterfront location allowed Sherman to build and manage both steamboats and canal boats, and to maintain business connections in the Hudson Valley, Lake George, New York City, and Montreal.
To further invest in his shipping business (and to support the overall economy of his beloved city), Jahaziel and his business partners constructed a towpath on the eastern shores of Otter Creek in 1824 that allowed for mules to tow canal boats, rafts, and sailing vessels between downtown Vergennes and the outlet to Lake Champlain seven miles downstream. This winding seven-mile journey to the lake was not ideal for steamers competing on a strict timetable, so Jahaziel also purchased land at Fort Cassin for a steamboat landing. On the same property, he built an extension of Vergennes – complete with storehouses for products and a hotel for passengers. Jahaziel ran his own packet boat, Fort Cassin, along the towpath to ensure consistent and speedy transportation between downtown Vergennes and his Fort Cassin annex.
Fort Cassin was not Jahaziel’s only real estate investment. Throughout the mid-1820s, Jahaziel invested heavily in buildings, farms, and lake and river frontage in Vergennes and nearby areas of Addison County that amounted to over a thousand acres of land. Jahaziel even constructed the stone “Sherman Block” on Main Street in downtown Vergennes between South Water and South Maple Streets, now known as the “Stone Block,” which stood three stories high before a fire in 1895 claimed the top level.
After semi-retiring from his steamboat career in the early 1830s, transportation remained central to Jahaziel’s investments. Much as he did with steam navigation, Jahaziel recognized the transformative power of railroads for overland travel and invested accordingly, heading a consortium that sought to establish a line between Vergennes and Bristol, Vermont in 1835. In 1843, he took on a more ambitious venture, investing in a rail line aiming to span railroads across the entirety of Vermont.
Throughout his life, the success of Vergennes was paramount in Jahaziel’s mind. In 1835 and 1836, Jahaziel served as the Vergennes representative in the Vermont state legislature. He lived in Montpelier during the two autumn sessions. Jahaziel’s political activism extended to the national scale as well – in 1840, he convened a meeting of the Whig Party in Vergennes that endorsed William Henry Harrison for United States President.
At his death in 1844, Jahaziel was remembered both as a savvy businessman and a civic leader committed to the well-being of his beloved city. A local publication in the 1880s considered him “a man of great dignity of presence, of courteous manners, of great method and system in his business affairs, and universally respected for his probity and high sense of honor.”
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.