Explore steamboat history at Maritime Museum

FOUR WRECKS FROM the Shelburne Steamboat Graveyard were created using photogrammetry.

This summer, Lake Champlain Maritime Museum brings the remarkable story of Lake Champlain’s pivotal role in the Steamboat Revolution to the public through two new exhibits, “Jahaziel Sherman’s Steamboats,” and “The Archaeology of Lake Champlain Steamboats.” In the early 1800s, steam navigation transformed American culture, and revolutionized trade and transportation worldwide. Lake Champlain was central to the Steamboat Revolution.

“The rediscovery of the long-lost portrait of Captain Jahaziel Sherman of Vergennes, Lake Champlain’s steamboat pioneer, is the springboard for these new special exhibits and a digitization initiative that will expand our knowledge and understanding of the Champlain Valley region’s role in the birth of the Steamboat Era,” said Susan Evans McClure, Executive Director of Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. “This only known likeness of Captain Sherman allows us for the first time to literally put a human face on this important chapter of our history.”

After running a steamboat on the Hudson River in competition with inventor Robert Fulton, Sherman moved to Vergennes in 1813 to build and command the first boat of the Lake Champlain Steamboat Company. By 1832, Sherman had overseen construction and operations of six Lake Champlain steamboats: Phoenix I, Phoenix II, Champlain, Congress, Franklin, and Water Witch.

Two hundred years ago, in September 1819, Sherman’s first steamboat, Phoenix, caught fire and sank. The archaeological investigation of the wreck in the early 1980s inspired the establishment of Vermont’s Underwater Preserves for divers, and led to the founding of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum and the sonar survey of Lake Champlain’s shipwrecks.

Two of Sherman’s vessels survive as Vermont Underwater Historic Preserves, and a third was recently identified at the Shelburne Steamboat Graveyard. In addition, the 1814 gunboat Ticonderoga, which survives on land at Whitehall, NY, was started as a steamboat in 1813 under Sherman’s direction. Before the boat could be completed, it was acquired by the U. S. Navy to serve in Commodore Macdonough’s War of 1812 fleet. The vessel was recovered in the 1950s as a relic of national significance.

Few details about the construction and operation of early steamboats survive, so the shipwrecks in Lake Champlain are a resource with special significance.

“Captain Sherman was at the forefront of the world’s steamboat revolution,” said nautical archaeologist Kevin Crisman, Ph.D. who participated in field investigation of Sherman’s Phoenix more than 30 years ago, and the 2016 discovery of Phoenix II at the Shelburne Steamboat Graveyard in 2016. “Sherman’s Phoenix is the world’s earliest studied steamboat shipwreck, and he also was deeply involved in steam navigation on the Hudson River, Lake George, and the St. Lawrence.” 

Today a new generation of nautical archaeologists is using the latest technology to explore Lake Champlain shipwrecks and learn more about the dawn of the steamboat era. For the next two weeks, Kotaro Yamafune, who created the dramatic 1:1 digital model of Sherman’s Phoenix II at the Shelburne Shipyard Steamboat Graveyard that is captured on video in the exhibit, will be back at the Maritime Museum to provide training in photogrammetry to nautical archaeologists and avocational divers.

Yamafune will offer “Introduction to 3D Modeling of Underwater Sites” in a three-day course, July 22,23 and 24, from 6-9 p.m. Cost: $20. Register on eventbright.com. Find more information about Sherman’s Steamboats at lcmm.org.

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Addison County Independent