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Discovery in a steamboat graveyard

Alumna Carolyn Kennedy’s PhD research unearths history below Vermont’s Lake Champlain
August 7, 2017
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By Louise Morgan

Nautical archaeologist Carolyn Kennedy, BA 12, spent part of the last three summers with a team of divers exploring the depths of Lake Champlain in Vermont, where more than 300 shipwrecks find their final resting place.

A graduate of Concordia in classics and anthropology, Kennedy is now a PhD candidate in archaeology at Texas A&M University in College Station.

Carolyn Kennedy Kennedy examines one of the steamboat wrecks in Shelburne Shipyard. | Photo courtesy of Carolyn Kennedy

An archaeological investigation of Shelburne Shipyard in Vermont — led by Kennedy and her supervisor, Kevin Crisman, with support from the Institute of Nautical Archaeology and the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation — revealed four steamboat wrecks in shallow water ranging in dates from 1820 to 1893.

“Lake Champlain is cold and dark and it’s freshwater — perfect conditions to preserve a wreck,” says Kennedy.

The team spent weeks examining the Shelburne wrecks, which were retired and purposely sunk after being stripped of their valuables. Researchers measured and collected data underwater, when a diver found a rare piece of an archeological puzzle — a chisel inscribed with the word Phoenix II.

Kennedy’s dissertation research explores steamboat construction to better understand the evolution of America’s early steamboats and their impact. She had also hoped to identify some of the wrecks, despite sparse and unreliable records.

Carolyn Kennedy Carolyn Kennedy holds an important piece of evidence in identifying the Phoenix II — a chisel inscribed with the boat’s name, recovered from the wreck. | Photo courtesy of Carolyn Kennedy

“We looked up historical sources, which told us which boats they should be, but they ended up being wrong,” Kennedy says.

Kennedy expects to graduate in August 2018. Her dissertation will be available for free, online, soon after. She answered a few questions about her distinct research at her time at Concordia.

Your research looks at steamboats from 1807 to 1850. What’s interesting about this time period?

“The first steamboat appeared in 1807, yet there are very few records on them before 1850. Nobody wrote anything down because they were still working out how to build faster, lighter boats to carry more passengers.

The only documents we have from that time say they were working by trial and error. They would build a boat and run it for six months, then pull it out of the water and change it completely. After 1850, there were photos, plans and historical documentation about boats’ construction, but prior to 1850 we have to rely pretty heavily on archaeology.”

Tell us about finding the chisel and its significance.

Carolyn Kennedy: “Ten days into our last field season, my colleague found a cache of tools when he moved a rock out of the way. When I picked up a chisel, I saw the letters ‘PH’ inscribed, obscured by mud and a little eroded. I joked that it might say ‘Phoenix’ and laughed because that would be impossible.

My colleague started rubbing at the letters, and said, ‘Yep, it says Phoenix’. I grabbed it out of his hand and couldn’t believe what I saw — because this never happens. It didn’t make sense to find a ship’s name on a chisel, but there it was!

The exciting moment was not the chisel itself, it was the validation of all my research up to that point. This was proof that I had found the right wreck through research, rather than through luck of finding a chisel.

I had been the one to advocate for its identification as Phoenix II, so it was a particularly special moment for me. Now I can say for sure in my dissertation that it’s the Phoenix II, rather than Wreck II believed to be the Phoenix II.”

steamboat The Phoenix II probably resembled this steamboat woodcut used to advertise Lake Champlain steamboats in local newspapers. | Source: The Steamboats of Lake Champlain: 1809-1930 (Vermont Heritage Press, 1997)

As an archaeologist, what fascinates you about steamboats?

CK: “For thousands of years, boats had been powered by wind or manpower, restricted by how long a person can row or paddle, or by the speed and direction of the wind. In 1807, all of a sudden you have a steam engine — powered by coal or wood — that can propel the boat more reliably and on a schedule.

Imagine how this must have looked to people in the 1800s — putting a fire on a wooden hull in the water. It was exciting!

My research looks at passenger boats — elegant vessels with huge paddle wheels, gilded moldings and mahogany railings. At the time, this was how people got around, like our cars or buses today.

About the Phoenix II specifically, we have the captain’s journal. That’s how we know the first cholera death in North America occurred on Phoenix II, coming from Montreal.

The Phoenix II brought cholera into the U.S., then the bacteria travelled down to New York City, killing thousands, and so on. It’s horrible, but of great historical significance — and is an amazing historical link to this boat.”

How did your studies at Concordia help you get where you are today?

CK: “I discovered my interest in archaeology at Concordia. I took an intro course with Jane Francis [associate professor in the Department of Classics, Modern Languages and Linguistics], which really opened my eyes.

Dr. Francis, to this day, is a role model to me. Her archaeological work in Crete is fascinating, and she’ll always be a favourite professor! She encouraged me to apply to Texas A&M University for graduate school.

When I mentioned an interest in nautical archaeology, Dr. Francis encouraged me to find a field school to try it out and see if I really wanted to go into that. And I did. I found one in Menorca, Spain, and the following year, I came across a program at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum.

It was a fluke. I’d grown up around Lake Champlain and never connected it to archaeology in any way whatsoever — until I found that school online, which eventually led to my PhD research on the lake.”

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