Lost Pieces of 19th-Century Steamboat Wreck Found in Vermont

Divers discovered the Phoenix’s hull in 1978, but the vessel’s wheels remained lost—until now

This painting depicts the night the Phoenix steamboat caught fire on Lake Champlain. Painting by Ernie Haas / Courtesy of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum

Late last month, a recreational diver exploring the Vermont section of Lake Champlain discovered the long-lost wheels of one of the oldest steamboat wrecks in the United States.

First launched in 1815, the paddlewheel steamboat Phoenix was the second of its kind to sail on the body of water. Per the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum (LCMM), the ship regularly charted a path between New York and Quebec, stopping at other lake ports along the way.

On September 4, 1819, the Phoenix caught fire and sank off the coast of Colchester. Divers found its hull in 1978, but the location of the wheels that had propelled the boat—two identical structures, each measuring around 5 feet wide and 18 feet in diameter, stood on either side of the vessel—remained unclear.

Local man Gary Lefebvre spotted the first paddle wheel while working through a list of 3,000 sonar targets, reports Austin Danforth for the Burlington Free Press. After detecting a signal more than 180 feet below the water’s surface, he used a remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, to investigate its source.

“All the larger ships are identified by maritime museums or others,” Lefebvre tells the Burlington Free Press. “But the smaller targets, there’s so many out there you start to verify and check out what these things are when you have the time.”

As a statement from the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation (VDHP) notes, Lefebvre showed images of the first wheel to Chris Sabick, LCMM’s director of research and archaeology, who identified it as part of the Phoenix based on its location, construction style and burn marks.

Upon returning to the area several days later, reports Allen Kim for CNN, Lefebvre found a second paddle wheel about 100 yards from the first.

The wheels show signs of charring associated with the September 4, 1819, fire. Photo by Gary Lefebvre
Diver Gary Lefebvre used a remotely operated vehicle to capture images of the paddle wheels, which came to rest about 180 feet underwater in Lake Champlain. Photo by Gary Lefebvre

“The bottom of Lake Champlain is a well-preserved museum, and I enjoy seeing things for the first time that no one has ever seen on the bottom, or even knew existed,” says Lefebvre to CNN. “When you see something like this that’s been down there for that many years, that’s going to tie this whole story together in a better vision, it’s just incredible to look at.”

On the night of the 1819 wreck, passengers noticed a glow coming from the middle of the ship. A fire had broken out, likely started by a candle left lit in the pantry, though some evidence points to foul play by a shipping competitor. The majority of the steamboat’s 46 passengers and crew members made it to lifeboats, but a dozen people—including the captain—were left behind in the chaos. Six of these stranded passengers had died by the time help arrived in the morning.

The Phoenix’s paddle wheels were attached next to its engine. As the ship burned, the wheels probably came loose and sank, drifting to the bottom of Lake Champlain while the rest of the vessel continued to float south, the museum explains in a statement.

Built for passenger service across the lake, the Phoenix’s comfortable quarters included separate spaces for men and women, a saloon, a barber shop, and a pantry where the fateful candle was left unattended, according to the museum.

In the 1980s, archaeologists surveyed the hull and found that most of the Phoenix’s usable parts had been removed shortly after it sank. (One item, the ship’s bell, reportedly made its way to a church in Danville, Illinois.) A virtual tour of the wreck is available via YouTube.

“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,” says LCMM’s Sabick in the VDHP statement. “They also demonstrate that Lake Champlain still has many stories to tell and archaeological mysteries we can unravel.”

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