Sunken Steamboat Reveals New Secrets

This past weekend avocational diver Gary Lefebvre of Colchester, VT, identified some unusual wreckage off Colchester Shoal in Lake Champlain using a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV). Lefebvre brought footage of the discovery to the attention of Chris Sabick, our Director of Research and Archaeology, who identified the wreckage as the remains of one of two paddlewheels from an early steamboat.

Early steamboats traditionally had two wheels on either side of the boat with supporting beams holding them in place. Based on the location, the style of construction, and the presence of extensive charring on the timbers, Sabick determined it is likely a paddlewheel from the Steamboat Phoenix. Acting on this assumption, a second reconnaissance with the ROV found another paddlewheel in the vicinity of the first. This second paddlewheel structure was identical to the first in construction and also displayed extensive charring on the surface of its timbers verifying that it came from the same vessel.

Photographs of the paddlewheel structures by Gary Lefebvre

The Phoenix is one of the oldest known steamboat shipwrecks in North America. It is part of the Vermont Underwater Historic Preserves and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The boat was the second commercial steamboat on Lake Champlain, and was built and commanded by Captain Jahaziel Sherman of Vergennes, VT.

Phoenix was constructed for passenger service and outfitted for their comfort with separate cabins for gentlemen and ladies, a “saloon” beneath the stairs, a barber shop, smoking lounge, luggage compartment, galley, and pantry. Phoenix established Captain Sherman’s reputation for efficient and reliable service.

Lake Champlain Steamboat Company Notice – New Steam Boat Phoenix.
September 30, 1815. Silver Special Collections, UVM

As the pinnacle of 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.” 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.

Painting depicting the Steamboat Phoenix burning by Vermont artist Ernie Haas

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. Tragically, six people died during the fire and wreck of the steamboat.

As the steamboat Phoenix was floating dead in the water north of Colchester Shoal and burning furiously as the center of the vessel is consumed by fire, the structures that support the guards and paddlewheels on either side of the steamboat began to fail. The paddlewheels start to sag off the side of the vessel and eventually tear loose and drop to the bottom of Lake Champlain. The remaining hull burns down to the waterline while slowly drifting south and eventually coming to rest on the Shoal itself. Ice eventually dragged the charred hull remains partially off the shoal and deposit it where it now rests on the northern face of Colchester Shoal reef.

Director of Archaeology and Research, Chris Sabick, during a regular inspection of the Phoenix wreckage in 2019. Photograph by Kotaro Yamafune.

Several leading scholars, including Dr. Kevin Crisman of Texas A&M University, Dr. George Schwarz of the U.S. Navy’s Naval History and Heritage Command, and the museum’s own Chris Sabick, have done extensive research and documentation on this unique shipwreck in Lake Champlain.

According to Chris Sabick, “Gary’s amazing discoveries bring one of the most tragic maritime accidents in Lake Champlain’s history into sharp focus in an entirely new and dramatic way. They also demonstrate that Lake Champlain still has many stories to tell and archaeological mysteries we can unravel.”

Lake Champlain Maritime Museum will be working collaboratively with our partners at Vermont’s Division for Historic Preservation to identify further opportunities for research and documentation of this exciting new discovery.

Take a virtual tour of the Steamboat Phoenix shipwreck here.

2 thoughts on “Sunken Steamboat Reveals New Secrets”

  1. In July 2016 I road round trip on the ferry “Champlain” from Burlington to Port Kent & return. On the return trip got one of the those quick storms that came from the NW.

    Visiting your museum was another highlight. Certainly hope I can make another trip back your way in the not too distant future from my home in the Pacific NW!!!

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