VT Women: Philomene Daniels

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(HOST) This week – for women’s history month and the Lake Champlain quadricentennial – VPR salutes five women who contributed to the history and culture of the Champlain Valley. Today, freelance writer and researcher, Julia Lewandoski, has the story of Philomene** Daniels – first woman Steamboat Captain on Lake Champlain – and in the nation.

(LEWANDOSKI) In the 19th century, Lake Champlain was a major thoroughfare for commerce and pleasure, as steamboats on pleasure cruises, canal boats loaded with supplies, and ferries passed each other on the lake.  There were many captains piloting their craft between Vermont and New York, and one of them was Philomene Daniels.

Philomene Daniels was born in 1843. She lived in Vergennes with her husband, Captain Louis Daniels, Jr., and together they operated the "Daniels Boat Line" on Lake Champlain and on the Otter Creek.
Louis Daniels ran a daily ferry, "The Water Lily," from Vergennes to Westport, NY, and Philomene worked as "The Water Lily" pilot for nearly ten years until 1877, when she was officially licensed as Pilot and Master for steamboat navigation.  She was the first woman in the United States to receive the title.
Known as "Captain Phil," Daniels then operated her own boat, called "The Victor."  She often used her ferry to run "excursion trips," touring wealthy passengers through the summer resorts and private landings along the way.  On a trip in September of 1887, "Captain Phil" reported sighting the elusive lake monster, Champ, from the boat.
Steamboats have a long history on Lake Champlain.  The Steamer Vermont, completed in 1809, was the first steamboat on Lake Champlain, and the second commercial steamer in the world.  By the latter half of the nineteenth century, most long-distance ferries across the lake, like the route that Captain Phil piloted, were steamers, but they were joined on the lake by canal schooners, sloops, and barges towed by tugs.
Philomene Daniels was the only licensed female captain on the lake at the time, but she was not the only woman at work on boats.  Many of the canal boats that carried goods up and down the lake and through the canals at either end were run by families who for generations lived on their boats. Isabella Archambault and her daughter Cora lived on their family’s canal boats as they carried freight from New York to Canada and back.  Lucy Emeroy Brown, born in 1844, was a third generation canaler who worked on her parent’s canal boats until 1873. Women not only took care of their families on the boats, but also took regular turns at the helm.

After Captain Louis Daniels died, Philomene Daniels continued to run the business until her son, Mitchell, and his wife, Helen, took over in 1903. Following in "Captain Phil’s" footsteps, Helen Daniels became the second female licensed steamboat captain in the U.S.  While raising eight children, she took over "Captain Phil’s" duties until 1916, when the ferry ceased to operate.
When Philomene Daniels died in 1929, the steamboat era on Lake Champlain was dying with her. With new bridges, automobile traffic, and railroads, commercial boat transport was fast becoming obsolete. But Philomene Daniels had been the first woman at the helm during the golden age of boating on Lake Champlain.

Note:  This series is presented in celebration of Women’s History Month and the Champlain Quadricentennial.

Click here to learn more about the role of women in Vermont History

Click here to learn more about this year’s celebration of the Champlain Quadricentennial 

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