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Lost wheels of 1815 steamer found

Listen to this article At the bottom of Lake Champlain, located on the border between the states of Vermont and New York in the US, the missing wheels of the 19th century steamer Phoenix, which sank as a result of a large fire that broke out on board in 1819, have been found. The steamer
Published: September 14, 2020 - 09:00
Updated: July 22, 2023 - 21:03
Lost wheels of 1815 steamer found
Listen to this article

At the bottom of Lake Champlain, located on the border between the states of Vermont and New York in the US, the missing wheels of the 19th century steamer Phoenix, which sank as a result of a large fire that broke out on board in 1819, have been found.

The steamer Phoenix made its first voyage in 1815. The ship equipped with driving wheels was only the second of its kind to traverse the waters of the United States. According to representatives of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum (LCMM), the ship operated regularly between New York and Quebec, also calling at ports along the way.

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Phoenix steamboat drive wheel divers24.pl
A fragment of a recovered drive wheel from the steamship Phoenix photo by Gary Lefebvre

This situation persisted until 4 September 1819, when the steamer Phoenix caught fire and sank off the coast of Colchester. Divers found its hull in 1978, but the location of the vessel’s driving wheels, which were on either side of the ship – remained unknown.

Gary Lefebvre spotted the first steamer wheel while scanning the lake bed with sonar, examining a list of 3000 unverified objects. When he tracked down the unusual shape about 55 metres below the water’s surface, he decided to take a closer look and used a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to do so.

All the larger ships are identified by maritime museums or other institutions, but beyond them are a huge number of smaller targets that no one has ever taken an interest in, Lefebvre said

According to a statement from the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation, Lefebvre showed photos of the first wheel to Chris Sabick, director of research and archaeology at LCMM, who identified it as part of the steamer Phoenix based on the location, the style of the structure itself, and fire marks.

Phoenix Lake Champlain Vermont steamboat wheel divers24.co.uk
The wreck was found in 1978 but the location of the wheels remained unknown photo Gary Lefebvre

Returning to the same spot a few days later, Lefebvre found a second paddle wheel about 90 metres from the first.

The bottom of Lake Champlain is well a wonderful museum where I have the opportunity and pleasure to be the first to see many of the exhibits. Not only has no one ever seen them at the bottom before, but often they are not even aware of their existence, ” explained Lefebvre in an interview with reporters

That September night in 1819, passengers noticed a glow from inside the ship. A fire had broken out, probably started by a lit candle in the pantry, although some evidence suggests it may have been the work of competitors. Most of the steamer’s 46 passengers and crew members made it to the lifeboats, but several were lost in the growing chaos and panic. As a result, 6 passengers died.

Phoenix steamer burns on Lake Champlain divers24.co.uk
Various rumours have circulated about the cause of the fire photo Lake Champlain Maritime Museum

Phoenix’s drive wheels were attached next to the engine. When the ship burned, the wheels probably came loose and sank, drifting to the bottom of Lake Champlain while the rest of the ship continued south, so they could not be located in the immediate vicinity of the wreck.

In the 1980s, archaeologists examined the hull and discovered that most of the useful parts had been removed from the wreck soon after it sank. The ship’s bell is said to have ended up in a church in Danville, Illinois. For those wishing to learn a little more about the steamboat’s history, we recommend visiting the museum’s website, where the following is available virtual tour of the wreck.

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About author

Tomasz Andrukajtis
Editor-in-chief of the DIVERS24 portal and magazine. Responsible for obtaining, translating and developing content. He also supervises all publications. Achived his first diving certification – P1 CMAS, in 2000. Has a degree in journalism and social communication. In the diving industry since 2008.
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