History Under the Waves: The Phoenix

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(Host)  All this week in our series "History Under the Waves" VPR is looking at five historic wrecks that lie at the bottom of Lake Champlain.  Today, we look at the Phoenix.  Built in 1815, it was the second commercial steamboat launched on Lake Champlain. 

At a length of 147 feet it was one of the largest boats operating on the lake.  It carried people from Whitehall New York to St. John, Quebec twice a week, a journey of two or three days.  On the night of September 4, 1819 it left Whitehall with 46 passengers and crew.  Adam Kane is Project Manager with the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum.  He describes the events of that night as the Phoenix made its way up the lake and into steamboat history.

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(KANE)  "The steamer started on its run.  Everything looked fine.  The captain retired to his bunk to get some sleep.  He was told that the hand at the wheel was to wake him when they got to Crab Island just outside Plattsburgh. 

About eleven o’clock or so, a passenger went below deck and found that the steamer was on fire in the kitchen area.  He immediately roused everyone, went to the gentlemen’s cabin, got everyone up.  There were forty six passengers and crew on board.  Everybody up on deck.  Many people still in their sleeping clothes.

As everyone was getting out and getting onto the deck, it was quickly realized that the steamer was becoming engulfed very quickly.  The fire had gotten out of control.  One of the accounts tells us that in the panic as the lifeboats were being launched, several of the crew members were in such a panic to get off and to get onto the lifeboats that the captain was forced to pull out his pair of pistols to keep order as people were being loaded onto the boats.

The first lifeboat left full and it took all of the women and some of the crew members off and was rowed out.  The second lifeboat as it was lowered into the water in a near panic now, it left too soon.  And it left eleven people on board as it was burning.

Both lifeboats rowed away to the nearest island which was Providence Island, leaving those eleven people on the burning steamer including the captain, and he ordered everyone to find whatever they could that could float.  And all eleven jumped into the lake. 

The two lifeboats rowed over to Providence Island and they dropped nearly all of the passengers off.  And the crewmembers came back to look for any of these eleven folks that were left on board.  And as they rowed around the burning hulk of the Phoenix they were able to pick up five of the eleven people who had been cast into the lake.  But sadly six people perished in the lake that night.

Eventually the hulk, the burned out hulk went ashore on Colchester Shoal.  After it went ashore the Lake Champlain Steamboat Company came in over the next months and they salvaged everything that they could that was of value.

And the hulk of the Phoenix was just left behind.  It became useless to the Lake Champlain Steamboat Company.

That winter ice came in, froze up around the hulk, washed ashore and in the spring when the ice let out, it dragged the hulk further into the lake and set it down on Colchester Shoal, on what is basically an underwater mountainside.

The bow of the vessel stands twelve feet off the bottom.  So it dwarfs a diver as you look at it.  And the bow is in sixty feet of water.  There’s quite a bit of ambient light.  You can see everything.  There’s quite a few fish around. And as you pass the bow, and you descend down the wreck, you’re, again, struck by the size of the timbers of this boat…(which) are a foot or more in their dimensions – a massively built boat.

Obviously everywhere you look on this boat, everything is burned.  There are all the ends of the frames, and the timbers are just this charred, charred black among the black water of Lake Champlain at that depth.

There are many steamboat wrecks in the world.  It’s not an uncommon thing to find a steamboat wreck.  But the Phoenix – it is first of all the world’s oldest steamboat wreck.  And it’s right in our backyard.  So it’s from that very early genesis of steam technology… and from that inkling of steam technology, that very early age – that marks the industrial age.

The society that is around us today has its genesis in that steamboat, in that era.

(HOST) Tomorrow in our series we look at the tragic wreck of the Sarah Ellen on a cold December night in 1860.  You can find more information on this series and others in our Champlain400 coverage at VPR.net.

Originally broadcast on July 28, 2009 as part of VPR’s Champlain 400.

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