By the Collections team at Lake Champlain Maritime Museum
Preface: This is the fifth 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.
Soon after his first steamer, Ticonderoga, was purchased and converted into a schooner for the War of 1812 defense of Lake Champlain, Jahaziel began construction of his next vessel, Phoenix. This vessel was the second steamboat on the lake and experienced a number of interesting events during its 4-year career.
Shipwright Edward Roberts, who had worked with the builders of the naval fleet, began construction of Phoenix at the shipyard on Otter Creek as the War of 1812 ended. Launched in 1815, Phoenix boasted a 45-horsepower engine twice as powerful as that of the only other steamer on the lake, the rival Winans brothers’ Vermont.
Phoenix carried both passengers and freight between Whitehall, NY and St. Johns, QC with Burlington at the mid-point of the journey. As both builder and master of this steamboat, Phoenix established Jahaziel’s reputation for efficient and reliable service.
In 1817, passage from Whitehall to Burlington or from Burlington to St. Johns cost $5, with discounts available for children, servants, animals, and passengers traveling shorter distances. The Lake Champlain Steamboat Company published freight rates for a number of common cargoes, and rates for other items were at the discretion of the captain. The steamer offered opulence to its passengers, with separate cabins for men and women, a “saloon” beneath the stairs, a barbershop, and smoking lounge, among other amenities.
As the pinnacle of its Lake Champlain navigation, Phoenix was chosen to transport President James Monroe when he traveled through the region in July 1817 on the national tour that coined the phrase “Era of Good Feelings.” When the President’s arrival overland was delayed by two days, Sherman and his partner Amos Barnum offered the waiting crowds a free excursion on Phoenix to pass the time. On the morning of July 25, Monroe boarded Phoenix. Cannons fired a salute, and the steamboat set off on the “romantic and delightful” passage to Vergennes. The President was reported to have remained on deck “and expressed himself highly gratified with the scene.” Monroe slept aboard Phoenix that night, and the following day, visited the Canadian border and Plattsburgh.
Phoenix’s short four-year career ended in tragedy during the early morning hours of September 5, 1819. En route from Burlington to Canada, Phoenix burned to the waterline and sank on Colchester Reef. The fire’s cause remains unknown.
Jahaziel Sherman was not on board at the time of the disaster, kept home by sickness. His eldest son, Richard W. Sherman, then 21 years old, was in command, and distinguished himself by his management of the crisis.
Most passengers escaped on two lifeboats to nearby Providence Island and Colchester Point. Eleven people remained on board; five survived by clinging to debris thrown into the water by Richard Sherman, but six others perished, including the chambermaid, Sarah Wilson, and a twelve-year-old boy.
Phoenix remained undetected in Lake Champlain until 1979, when recreational divers discovered its charred remains. The discovery of the Phoenix and ensuing underwater archaeology efforts inspired regional historians, archaeologists, and divers to organize as the Champlain Maritime Society, and led to the creation of Lake Champlain Maritime Museum.
Archaeological work on the site continues to the present, with teams of nautical archaeologists visiting in 2019 to examine the potential of creating a three-dimension model of the wreck using photogrammetry.
Phoenix is also part of Vermont’s Division for Historic Preservation Underwater Historic Preserves program, which provides public access to registered recreational divers and helps ensure the vessels’ long-term protection.