History Under the Waves: The General Butler

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(HOST) The General Butler was a sailing canal boat, a cargo vessel built in eighteen sixty two in Essex, New York.  Eighty-eight feet long, fourteen and a half feet wide, she was designed to both sail on the lake, and travel through the Champlain Canal system.  She was the tractor trailer of the nineteenth century.

On December ninth, eighteenseventy six, Captain William Montgomery had loaded her up with approximately thirtytons of marble form Fisk Quarry in Isle LaMotte.  In addition to carrying a few passengers including his daughter bound for Burlington, he had one able-bodied crew member on board.  A powerful winter gale hit as he approached Burlington. 

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Eric Tichonuk, Archaeological Diver and Replica Coordinator for the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum describes the series of events that led to one of the most dramatic shipwrecks in the lake’s history in the final part of our series, "History Under the Waves."

(Tichonuk)  What builds behind William Montgomery and the rest of the people on that boat is a storm of epic proportions.  As he’s coming into Burlington, the seas are building.  His boat is becoming damaged.  The rigging is becoming tattered.  And the worst of all possible scenarios unfolds as the steering mechanism gives way on his boat.  He has lost control of his vessel.

Now the port of Burlington was not very hospitable, because it is open to wind and waves.  But they built a breakwater to help shelter that.  Unfortunately William Montgomery and the rest of the people on this boat are outside of the Burlington Breakwater.

They attempt to hold the vessel by dropping an anchor.  And unfortunately the storm is so ferocious the anchor is dragging and the boat is getting ever closer to the breakwater.

He ends up going below and gets a tiller bar to jury-rig…that is a make-shift steering mechanism for the boat, lashes it in place with a chain.  His hope is to regain enough steerage to be able to navigate around the south end of the breakwater into the relatively sheltered waters behind. 

The order is given to cut that anchor line.  The boat begins to move.  And unfortunately they don’t make it.  The vessel is literally picked up by each of these waves and dropped on top of the breakwater. 

Now you’ve got to imagine, this is December ninth.  These stones are covered with ice.  The wind is howling.  The waves are crashing over it.  One by one the passengers made this perilous leap onto the ice covered stones.  And of course in true maritime fashion, the last individual to make that leap was none other than the captain, William Montgomery. 

As Montgomery landed on the breakwater, only moments later, the last waves engulfed the General Butler as it went to the bottom.  Now you might think "Thank goodness, all these people are now safe on the Burlington breakwater."  But unfortunately that breakwater is not connected to shore.  And with each successive wave these people are becoming drenched and literally chilled to the marrow of their bones. 

But one individual – a man named James Wakefield, who owned a chandlery shop, he took care of sails and other rigging parts for vessels will take his son Jack, get into a fourteen foot rowboat and row out in this storm and literally save all of these people.  He is the true hero of the day. 

When the vessel finally came to rest it sank to the lake bottom only a couple hundred feet away from the Burlington breakwater, and there rested on a flat bottom, sandy bottom in forty feet of water.

What’s remarkable about the General Butler is that the hull is still completely intact, from stem to stern, the front to the back, none of the vessel has actually collapsed. 

As you swim down the length of the boat, the cargo hatches that the marble was loaded through are evident, very visible.  And if you’ve brought a flashlight with you, you can peer down inside of there and still see the original blocks of marble. 

When you look at the Burlington waterfront, it was in large built where it is and how it is because of commercial traffic on Lake Champlain.  The very stones of the Burlington breakwater were brought in by canal boats.  This was our lifeblood link.  These boats made the connection with the Hudson River, and thus New York City and a world port.

I guess there’s a certain amount of mystery that goes along with every one of these shipwrecks. They all have a story to tell, to share. It’s like a time capsule, locked on the bottom with that moment’s time. And to me, to be able to dive on these wrecks and have a tangible link to these individuals who were working on the waterways as I do today is an incredible experience and I feel very privileged to be one of the people that can go down and be able to see these wrecks first-hand.

(HOST) You can find more information on the History Under the Waves series and others in our Champlain400 coverage at VPR.net.

Originally broadcast on July 31, 2009 as part of VPR’s Champlain 400 coverage.

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