In this video Art Cohn, founding director of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, tells the exciting story of the sinking of the General Butler, which sank in the Burlington harbor over a hundred years ago.
The General Butler was built in 1862 in Essex, New York. The boat was named after Benjamin Butler, a Massachusetts lawyer and businessman. Who was also a general during the Civil War. General Butler fought in some important battles at the start of the war. The ship was a typical Lake Champlain sailing canal boat – designed to sail on the lake and when masts were removed and centerboard raised, could travel though the Champlain Canal.
She was under the command of her third owner, Captain William Montgomery of Isle La Motte on her last voyage on December 9, 1876 when a powerful winter gale struck while sailing up the lake. Upon approaching Burlington, the Butler‘s steering mechanism broke. The captain rigged a tiller bar to the steering post in an attempt to maneuver the ship around the breakwater. But the attempt was unsuccessful and the schooner crashed into the breakwater. The force of the water was so great that the craft was repeatedly lifted on top of the ice-covered stones. One by one each of the ship’s crew made the perilous jump onto the breakwater. The captain was the last to leave the ship which immediately sank into the 40’ of water where she now rests.
After narrowly escaping death by drowning, the Butler‘s survivors now risked freezing to death on the breakwater. They all would have perished but for the heroic intervention of Burlington ship chandler James Wakefield and his son, who rowed out in a 14’ boat and took all five to safety. The Butler was declared a total loss. Artifacts from the General Butler are now on display at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum’s Basin Harbor facility.
More About Lake Champlain History: