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200-year-old wheels from oldest paddle steamship found in Vermont

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Salvagers in Vermont have uncovered paddle wheels from a steamship that sank more than two centuries ago.

Built in 1815, the SS Phoenix was 146 feet long and is the oldest known example of a paddle steamer in the world. 

The wheels were found last month about a mile from the ship’s hull, which has become a popular site for scuba divers. 

The Phoenix caught fire while ferrying passengers across Lake Champlain in 1819, leading to the deaths of a half-dozen people. 

Some say a crew member was careless with a candle, which sparked the blaze, while others suspect it may have been sabotaged.  

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Gary Lefebvre found the intact paddle wheels of the SS Phoenix, a sidewheel steamship that caught fire and sank in 1819

On August 28, Gary Lefebvre and his wife, Ellen, headed out onto Lake Champlain to investigate some of the targets they had spotted on their radar.

Using a camera on their remote diving vehicle, they spotted an intact wheel nestled in the lakebed.

The Lake Champlain Maritime Museum confirmed the wheel was from the Phoenix, a wooden-frame sidewheel steamship that ferried people and cargo between New York, Vermont and what is now Quebec, Canada.

Built in 1815, the Phoenix measured 146 feet long and 27 feet wide, and was powered by both steam and sail.

At the request of the museum, Lefebvre returned to the lake five days after his initially discovery and found a second paddle wheel about 100 yards away 

According to the museum, the steamboat had separate cabins for gentlemen and ladies, as well as a barber shop, downstairs ‘saloon’ and smoking lounge.

In 1817, the Phoenix carried then-President James Monroe from Burlington, Vermont to Plattsburgh, New York.

Built in 1815, the Phoenix measured 146 feet long and 27 feet wide, and was powered by both steam and sail. She had separate cabins for gentlemen and ladies, as well as a barber shop, smoking lounge and downstairs saloon

The phoenix ferried people and cargo between New York, Vermont and what is now Quebec, Canada. In 1817, the Phoenix carried President James Monroe from Burlington, Vermont to Plattsburgh, New York

Two years later, on September 4, 1819, a fire broke out and all 46 passengers and crew members were forced to abandoned ship.    

While most were put on lifeboats, about a dozen people – including Captain Richard Sherman –  were left behind when the last boat was sent out prematurely.

‘The boats were down, and the captain and his men held shrieking women and children in their arms, when the helm gave way, and the vessel, turning from the wind, flew backwards, whirling round and round from the shore,’ Fanny Wright wrote in an 1821 account of the disaster. 

A fire broke out on September 4, 1819, forcing all 46 passengers and crew members  to abandoned ship. Most were put on lifeboats but six people ultimately lost their lives

‘None could approach the engine; its fury, however, soon spent itself, and left the flaming wreck to the mercy of only the winds and waves.’

Sherman, whose father had built the Phoenix, was among those rescued the following morning, but six people drowned trying to swim for safety. 

‘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,’ Lefebvre told CNN.

He had explored the wreckage before but said he had no idea something like this was still down there.

 The second paddle wheel was identical to the first and also displayed extensive charring, verifying that it came from the same vessel.

After talking to the museum, Lefebvre went back to the lake five days later and found a second paddle wheel about 100 yards from the original.

This second structure was identical and also displayed extensive charring on the surface, verifying that it came from the same vessel. 

The wreckage from the Phoenix was first discovered in 1978.

Initially the lifeless ship drifted until it hit Colchester Reef, but the Lake Champlain Steam-boat Company salvaged the steam engine and had the hull dragged off the reef to sink.

Museum researcher Chris Sabick during a regular inspection of the Phoenix wreckage in 2019.  The shipwreck is a popular destination for scuba divers, and anchors and other items have been recovered before, but nothing on the scale of the paddle wheels

During the subsequent investigation, it was reported the fire was started accidentally by a crew member who left a candle burning in the ship’s pantry.

But there was also widespread speculation the blaze was intentionally set by saboteurs angered by the advent of steam-powered ships.

Less than half of the Phoenix remains today, the results of time, the company’s salvage efforts and other dives.

A map indicating the location of the Phoenix shipwreck in Lake Champlain. The lake is  home to the remains of dozens of vessels, going back at least to the Revolutionary War

Anchors and other items have been spotted before, but nothing so well preserved.

The two wheels were about a mile away from the Phoenix’s main hull, which is located about 60 to 100 feet below the surface. 

‘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,’ Chris Sabick, research director at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, said in a statement. 

‘They also demonstrate that Lake Champlain still has many stories to tell and archaeological mysteries we can unravel.’

Sabick said charring on the paddles indicates how quick and intense the fire was.

The wheels are being left in place for future study – according to Sabick, bringing them back to the surface would be too difficult.

Photographs of the paddlewheel structures. Only about 40 percent of the Phoenix remains due to the ravage of time, salvage efforts by its manufacturers and previous dives

The wreck of the Phoenix is a Vermont State Historic Site and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

It’s protected by the Lake Champlain Underwater Historic Preserve, though qualified divers are allowed access if they register.

Lake Champlain is something of an underwater maritime museum, with the remains of dozens of vessels going back at least to the Revolutionary War. 

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