The Phoenix Steamboat - Shipwreck Discovered

Sonar team discovers the remains of an early 1800's steamboat PHOENIX

Fairport, NY….. June 2, 1979    One hundred and seventy five years has elapsed since the wooden steamboat Phoenix caught fire and sank in Lake Champlain. Memories of that disaster were captured on paper as the sonar survey team, consisting of Jim Kennard and Joe Zarzynski, produced sonar imagery of the skeletal remains of the 146 foot steamboat. Like the mythological bird, Phoenix, this vessel, too, would burn on a funeral pyre and after a moratorium of rest would find rebirth. Hence the veil of time and water parted as the sonar pictured that which survived of the wreck.

The PHOENIX: 1817 – 1819

The Phoenix had become the pride of the side-wheel steamers upon majestic Lake Champlain. The lake is 109 miles long and is located in Vermont, New York, and Quebec.

The Phoenix was built in 1815 and was the second side-wheel steamer on Lake Champlain. She measured 146’ in length by 27’ wide and weighed 336 tons. The ship was on the Whitehall to St.Johns run on September 5, 1819 when, in the early morning hours, a fire broke out in the pantry that spread quickly and engulfed the wooden vessel. An alarm was given and 40 or the 46 passengers on board safely abandoned the burning ship. The Phoenix eventually descended into the cold waters of Lake Champlain after hitting the shoals of Colchester Reef. The Phoenix is considered to be one the lake’s most historic vessels. On July 26, 1817, the ship was used to transport President James Monroe across the lake. In July 1818, the Phoenix brought the remains of General Montgomery to Whitehall, New York. However, the Phoenix’s most notable moment came during the tragedy of its sinking. Richard Sherman, 21 years old, and the son of the original captain, Jahaziel Sherman, commanded the ship. The elder Sherman was convalescing at home with the flu. The ship was about 12 miles north of Burlington, Vermont, when the alarm was given that a fire had broken out in the Phoenix. Apparently some members of the crew after a midnight meal left a candle burning in the galley. Within minutes the ship was ablaze and havoc ruled the ship. As the passengers rushed for the two lifeboats, the young captain brandished two pistols and proceeded to direct an orderly evacuation of the burning ship. Fanned by a north wind, the Phoenix soon was a glowing ember.

As the Phoenix floundered in the night the two lifeboats were loaded with a many people as possible and sent to nearby Providence Island. However, eleven persons still remained aboard the flaming deck. Captain Sherman then persuaded these others to take to the water clutching benches, tables, and anything that might hold them afloat. After five minutes of the discovery of the fire, the steamer had been evacuated. The young captain Sherman was the last to depart his ship in the tradition of the maritime. He was located over two hour’s later, unconscious upon a table-leaf near Stave Island. The Phoenix, lighting the sky with its flames, drifted along with the waves off Colchester Reef until it burned to the water, then perished upon the rocks of the reef. Within the next few months the engine and other salvageable items were removed from the burned out hull. Most likely the remaining skeletal frame of the Phoenix was pulled off of the reef by the winter’s ice flow or done intently to remove a potential obstruction to other ships.

This disaster was not without an act of criminal depravity. One of the passengers was an employee from a bank located in Burlington, Vermont and carried a satchel of money that amounted to over $8000. During the chaos of the evacuation and rescue efforts the carpetbag was stolen. Upon discovering the theft, he ordered his son to pursue the culprit and retrieve the cash. The son soon apprehended the thief at Bells Ferry and captured the bandit, thus reclaiming the currency.

The sonar discovery of the remains of the Phoenix was a triumph for state of the art technology and responsible research. The sonar team located the Phoenix within 90 seconds of deploying the side scan sonar. During approximately the same period of time, and independent of Kennard and Zarzynski, the Phoenix was also located accidentally by Don Mayland while instructing deep diving techniques for a class of SCUBA diving students.

Location:   N44° 32.98,        W73° 20.11
Just north of the Colchester Reef





anonymous by George Clark on 9/8/2008

Great work, great stories, that coast guard boat, if I'm not mistaken was used in the 1960's on either an LST such as USS Talbot County, or LSD such as USS Casa Grande, two of the ships in my task force(s) during my three trips to the Mediterranean(6th fleet. There were at least two sizes of that type LCVP(papa boat) and LCM(Mike boat) Papa boats took us ashore at liberty ports Bluefish9/06/08

anonymous by Phoenix on 1/14/2010
i am studying about the phoenix in 6th grade right now and this was very helpfull!!!!!!!!!!!!!
anonymous by Phoenix on 1/14/2010
i am studying about the phoenix in 6th grade right now and this was very helpfull!!!!!!!!!!!!!
anonymous by Celia on 12/16/2010
Great information!!! Very helpful!!!
anonymous by RS on 11/19/2016

My great grandfather and mother were aboard the Phoenix. Most accounts describe the fire as resulting from an overheated boiler caused by a neglectful drunken crewman and the date being 1847. Nice article otherwise.

anonymous by ast on 5/1/2017

this was very helpful

anonymous by tom on 9/12/2020

Regarding the comment above about the date being 1847. That was a different Phoenix that burned and sank on the Great Lakes.

Want to post a comment?

Join now for free to comment on this article.
Already have an account? Login to comment.

Related Posts

The schooner Water Witch is one of the oldest fully intact commercial sailing ships to be located underwater in the United States.  more »

The canal schooner O.J. Walker which was lost in a heavy gale in 1895 was located in Lake Champlain in October 1983.  more »

A uniquely propelled horse powered ferry boat was discovered in Lake Champlain, near Burlington, Vermont, in the Fall of 1983.  more »

The remains of a Revolutionary War Bridge crossing Lake Champlain has been found.  more »

Shipwreck of the Steamship Champlain located by side scan sonar.  more »

Submit your own


Ask a Question

Shipwrecks of Lake Ontario - A Journey of Discovery Book

The National Museum of the Great Lakes is excited to announce the release of a new book titled Shipwrecks of Lake Ontario: A Journey of Discovery. This book contains stories of long lost shipwrecks and the journeys of the underwater explorers who found them, written by Jim Kennard with paintings by Roland Stevens and underwater imagery by Roger Pawlowski.

Buy Now!

Legend of the Lake - New Discovery Edition Book

The recent discovery of the wreck of the British warship Ontario, “the Holy Grail” of Great Lakes shipwrecks, solves several mysteries that have puzzled historians since the ship sank more than two centuries ago. Now, for the first time, the whole tragic story of the Ontario can finally be told.

Buy Now!