Local research diver stumbles upon paddle-wheels belonging to steamboat from 1815

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A research diver from Colchester spends his free time exploring the bottom of Lake Champlain.

One day in late August, Gary Lefebvre and his wife, Ellen, found two 18-foot paddle-wheels that once moved a steamboat 201 years ago.

“We do 60 to 100 dives per year,” said Gary.

The paddle-wheels he found belonged to Steamboat Phoenix first launched in 1815. But in 1819, the ship caught on fire and fell to the bottom.

“That’s one thing that these paddle-wheels show us is that the intensity of the fire was pretty massive,” said Chris Sabick, Director of Research and Archeology at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum.

Chris began as an intern at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in 1998 and has led the archeology department since 2013. He says the Phoenix often charted a two-day course from White Hall, New York to St. Jean, Quebec, picking up passengers along the way.

On the night of 1819, passengers were forced to jump in the water. Six did not make it to shore.

Gary and his wife travel nearly 2,000 miles a year on their research vessel equipped with sonar technology, which detected the first paddle-wheel. After bringing it to Chris’ attention, Gary went back out and located the second the one, just 100 yards away.

“That’s what I did. As I moved the ROV (Remote Operated Vehicle) around I said, ‘Chris, you’re not going to believe this, but there’s a lot of burnt timbers on this one as well as the first one,'” said Gary.

Gary says these wheels were found 180 ft to 190 ft below the water, prompting assistance from technical divers. For the time being, the wheels will remain in Lake Champlain along with many other historical structures.

“There are shipwrecks from the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, plus the extensive commericial period of the lake’s history of which the steamboats are certainly a part,” said Chris.

Chris says he hopes to team up with researchers from Texas A&M and plan an extensive documentation program next summer.

Gary began his efforts in 2010 and says when he’s out on the water, he’s not only enjoying the Adirondacks but what lies below.

“Since then, we’ve picked up over 3,000 targets and we’re just starting to identify some of those in our spare time, which is pretty interesting,” said Gary.

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