Steamboat graveyard history revealed and corrected

Chris Sabick, Director of Archaeology at Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, spoke to an enthusiastic crowd at Shelburne Town Hall last Saturday morning at an event hosted by Shelburne Historical Society and sponsored by Shelburne Shipyard. Courtesy photo

History lovers, boat lovers, steamship lovers, mystery lovers and lake lovers filled the Town Hall to capacity on Saturday morning to hear the results of three summers of nautical archaeology in the waters of Shelburne Bay just off the Shelburne Shipyard.

Chris Sabick, Director of Archaeology at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, has led the surveys of steamships retired from service on Lake Champlain and left to sink in the “steamboat graveyard” along the shore in the 19th and early 20th centuries. He engaged his audience with the details of how he and his 35 student archaeologists from Texas A&M University spent countless hours scuba diving and snorkeling at the site, measuring the timbers that lie on the bottom, and even sending up a drone to record a video of the skeletons.

The work of the summer of 2016 corrected a long-held identification of one of the four steamships lying near Shelburne Shipyard. Early maps had identified the ship as the Winooski, but it was in fact the Phoenix 2, built at Shelburne Shipyard and launched in 1819 to replace the Phoenix 1, which sank in 1815 on Colchester Reef.

This discovery illustrates the analysis, science, and detailed examination that these divers make in an ongoing effort to understand the way steamships were built and how their construction evolved during the hundred-plus years they provided transportation and commerce on the lake.

The Steamship Graveyard talk, which also delved into the history of Shelburne Shipyard from its founding in the early 1800s to today, was hosted by Shelburne Historical Society and underwritten with the generous sponsorship of Shelburne Shipyard.

The Historical Society is planning a series of lectures with an agricultural theme for this spring, summer, and fall, exploring the earliest days of farming in Shelburne and progressing into the modern and even trail-blazing agriculture that is being practiced here today.

The society, which was revived thanks to community enthusiasm and curiosity at the time of the Shelburne 250th celebration in 2013, is a membership organization and relies on community support to tackle exciting and informative programs, as well as grants for history-based projects in local schools, and the archiving and preservation of historical material donated by community members.

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