The History and Archaeology of the Lake Champlain Steamboat Phoenix II (1820-1837)
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Steam-propelled vessels transformed North American life in the nineteenth century, but many aspects of the boats still elude us, particularly for the dynamic decades of experimentation and adaptation before 1850. Fortunately, a material record was preserved in the form of wrecks. One of these surviving hulls is Phoenix II, built in 1820 for passenger service on Lake Champlain. The fifth passenger steamboat to operate on the lake, the sidewheel-equipped Phoenix II was once known as the fastest boat in the world. Traveling between SaintJean-sur-Richelieu, Québec, and Whitehall, New York, for seventeen years, the steamer’s career was highlighted by a variety of events, including carrying the first fatal case of cholera into the United States in 1832. In 1837, the old and worn out wooden hull was retired at Vermont’s Shelburne Shipyard, where it was scuttled in the shallow harbor. An archaeological investigation of the hull structure from 2014 to 2016 revealed that only the very bottom of the hull remained intact, but what was left was in a good state of preservation and could tell much about how the vessel was constructed. Excavation of key components of the hull, including the bow, five frame sections, the stern, and the rudder, allowed archaeologists to reconstruct how the boat was built, and interpret what it might have looked like despite the lack of iconographic or historical written evidence. The archaeology revealed that the hull was built much more robustly than necessary for an inland body of water like Lake Champlain. When compared with iii contemporary examples of early steamers, its reconstruction shows that the boat resembled those that preceded it more than those that followed, indicating that shipwrights had not yet realized the full potential of hull design as a method of increasing overall speed.
Kennedy, Carolyn (2019). The History and Archaeology of the Lake Champlain Steamboat Phoenix II (1820-1837). Doctoral dissertation, Texas A & M University. Available electronically from