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Kane: Shipwrecked

01/26/12 5:55PM By Adam Kane
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(Host) With a shipwrecked cruise ship capturing recent headlines, commentator and Lake Champlain Maritime Museum Co-Director Adam Kane, has been reminded of the heroism of an old Lake Champlain captain.

(Kane) The tragic wrecking of the Costa Concordia off the Italian coast seems to have occurred in the wrong century. It's hard to imagine in our modern age that something as avoidable as running into a well-charted reef could doom a massive, modern cruise ship. And the captain's apparent neglect is startling enough for the tabloids. "Captain orders meal as ship sinks" You just can't make this stuff up.

The sad details of the captain's behavior bring to mind a quite opposite story from our own Lake Champlain.

The schooner General Butler was captained by James Montgomery, a rough and tumble lake captain, as she sailed on Lake Champlain between Isle La Motte and Burlington in December 1876. At Isle La Motte the 90 foot-long wooden schooner was loaded with 30 tons of marble. Montgomery had his deckhand on board, and was accompanied on this day by an injured quarry worker en route to the hospital in Burlington , and his sixteen year old daughter and her girlfriend. The girls were going Christmas shopping in Burlington.

Suddenly, a storm blew up and engulfed the schooner.

The boat struggled through the rough, cold seas. As it approached Burlington, a wave struck it so hard that its wheel was torn off the rudder post. Without the means to steer, Montgomery's deck hand threw out a storm anchor to hold the boat in place while the captain worked furiously to jerry-rig a tiller. But fierce winds pushed the schooner ever closer to shore.
General Butler hitting the Burlington Breakwater (By Earnest Haas, Courtesy Arthur Cohn)

With the tiller rigged, the storm anchor was cut and Montgomery tacked for the placid waters behind Burlington's massive stone breakwater, as spectators, sensing an unfolding tragedy, lined the waterfront.

The winds and the newly rigged tiller did not cooperate. Rather than sailing safely past the breakwater, the General Butler ran headlong into it. After the initial jarring impact, onlookers watched as the little schooner was repeated pulled off and then driven back into the unyielding stones.

Amidst the confusion, Montgomery gathered his charges onto the deck and with each cresting wave, dropped another person onto the breakwater below. With the schooner disintegrating beneath his feet, Montgomery, in true maritime form, was the last to leave the ship. The beaten schooner was promptly taken straight to the lake bottom by that Isle La Motte marble.

Having been saved from drowning, the shipwreck survivors now faced the prospect of dying from exposure on the breakwater. Their savior came in the form of Burlington 's lighthouse keeper and ship chandler, James Wakefield. A Scottish immigrant and Royal Navy veteran, Wakefield rowed a skiff out to the breakwater, and saved all five from certain death.

And not long after the sinking, Montgomery 's daughter is said to have asked when the schooner could be raised - so they could sail her back home.

Like I said. Stuff like this? Well, you just can't make it up.
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