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Tuesday September 30, 2008 Edition
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Sharing Memories of Philomene Ostiguy Daniels Caisse and the Daniels Steamboat Line (1877-1916)

Look closely in the pilot house and you will see Philomene at the wheel of the steamship “ The Water Lilly.”
photo provided
Look closely in the pilot house and you will see Philomene at the wheel of the steamship “ The Water Lilly.”
Middlebury College sophomore Alexandra Larrow recreates her role as Captain Philomene Daniels of the Daniels Steamship Line in Vergennes.
photo provided
Middlebury College sophomore Alexandra Larrow recreates her role as Captain Philomene Daniels of the Daniels Steamship Line in Vergennes.
Staring back at us from a time not that long ago is Philomene Daniels; the world’s first female steamship captain, who called the Otter Creek and City of Vergennes home
photo provided
Staring back at us from a time not that long ago is Philomene Daniels; the world’s first female steamship captain, who called the Otter Creek and City of Vergennes home

Tuesday September 30, 2008

By Cookie Steponaitis

    After the Civil War ended in 1865, Vergennes entered into a period of economic expansion and prosperity. During that time of commerce and change, there was a colorful individual who called the Little City her home, and whose descendents to this day tell stories of her spunk, her business sense, and her tenacity when it came to her family. They proudly tell stories of being descendents of “Captain Phil”, the world’s first female steamboat captain.

     Philomene came to live in Vergennes with her family in the mid 1850’s. She met and married Louis Daniels in 1862, and the young couple settled in a home on MacDonough Drive, across from Otter Creek At this time, the river and the buildings at the top of the falls were running and busy all day. On the left of the falls, if you face it by water, were Hayes, Falardo and Parker Mfg, who made doors, windows and sashes. Also there was Keeler’s steam tannery, Hawley Saw Mill, Norton’s Island Mill, the National Horse Nail factory, and the Cataract House stood tall and proud with its beautiful yellow paint and many glass windows facing the falls. Owned and operated by Eli Hayes, it was quite a sight. The railroad bridge that used to cross the river had just been taken down and the Otter Creek basin was alive with activity. Cargo and raw materials came and went by horse-drawn wagon and down the 7.7 miles of Otter Creek to Lake Champlain.

    Louis went to work for W.R. Bixby and also held jobs at Hays and Falardo’s shop, and he and Philomene settled in a home on MacDonough drive, across from the current boat docks. In 1869 he was employed on a steamer called the Curlew.  Louis received his Chief Engineer’s license in 1873 and soon after that his Master and Pilot Licenses. In January of 1877 he purchased his first steamship “The Water Lily” with a partner Sam Ives; and on June 10, 1880 he bought out his partner’s share of the business and the Daniels Steamship Line was born.

    Now “Captain Lou” as he was known to the townspeople was always seen hard at work with his wife at his side. She was not the homemaking type, but was dressed in the latest fashions from New York City. Her determination, feisty nature and her husband’s trust in her abilities began to earn her notice around town for her skills on the boat. Captain Lou and Philomene had two sons, Mitchell and Fred. Both boys were raised on Otter Creek and learned the twenty-seven bends that were taken in traversing Otter Creek from the docks in Vergennes to Fort Cassin, located at the mouth of the river.   

    Philomene had a good strong constitution and was known for saying that “she was as good as any male on the river.” She could perform any task on the boat, but stopped short of being the engineer because she would not wear pants.” She was a lady, you know” and there was limits. Encouraged by Louis, Philomene presented herself at the Coast Guard Station in Burlington, Vermont and stated that she wanted to test for her license. At first amused, and then alarmed, the Coast Guard officer suggested she go home. Philomene reminded them quite forcefully that,” it was her right to test, and she wasn’t going home until she did.” Not only did she pass her test with flying colors, but in 1887 the May 5th Burlington Free Press and Times called her, “undoubtedly the first woman to receive a pilot’s license in the country, if not the world.” From the archives at Bixby Library, the Ferrisburgh Historical Society, and collections of the Captains’ descendants, you can see images of the Daniels’ Steamship line with many of them showing a well-dressed Captain Philomene at the helm.

    At the point that Philomene earned her spot in history, the couple only had the one steamship, “The Water Lily.” In the spring of 1887, they purchased the “Little Nellie.” This steamer was raised from the bottom of the lake, having sunk in a cyclone. They bought it for $ 90.00. The two steamers were first vessels used for the daily run from Vergennes to Westport. By 1897, with increased demands and the beginning of excursion travel, the Daniels needed to expand again. That winter, in a shed along side the house, Captain Lou and his boys built the hull of their third steamer, “The Victor.”  Its pilot house was built by the furniture factory, Renaud, Miner & Co., located on the falls.  The steamer was 63.2 feet long and could accommodate 275 passengers. The death of Captain Lou in 1903 brought change to the Daniels Steamship line and another chapter for the history books. Mitchell’s wife Helen was a tiny woman who loved to cook and excelled as a dressmaker, homemaker and seamstress. She had given birth to eight children and kept an impeccable home. Needed to follow in her mother-in-law’s footsteps, Helen tested and became the second Daniels’ woman to pilot steamships up and down the Otter Creek. Philomene lived to 1929 and was buried in the Catholic cemetery in Vergennes.

     There are many exciting tales to relate about Captain Philomene and her trips down the Otter Creek and across the lake to Westport, New York. History tells of one male passenger who came into the pilot’s house with the attitude that Philomene should be at home and not operating a steamship. She asked him to leave and his attitude was he was not about to take orders from a female captain. After repeatedly asking the man to leave, Captain Philomene simply gave him a push, knocking him overboard.  After being fished out by her crew, he had a new appreciation and a new attitude for the rest of the trip.

     Club and the Otter Creek Basin Student History Club have had the privilege of researching, writing about and portraying Captain Philomene to audiences from Otter Creek, to the Vermont History Expo, to national history competitions in Washington, DC. Just last month, Middlebury College sophomore and former VUHS student Alexandra Larrow recreated her role as Captain Phil for a presentation to the VUHS faculty for in-service training. “I must admit, history was never my favorite subject at first,” commented Alexandra. “Then one day I got called into a room, asked to join a history club and handed this awesome costume. I was told a tale that sounded too important to be Vergennes history and I was hooked. Since meeting Captain Philomene through research and being allowed to portray her to groups of adults, students and in Washington D.C., I have come to appreciate the power of the history of this region. Some remarkable people and events went on here that shaped the culture and left a lasting legacy for all of us.”     The recent resurgence of the story of this incredible woman has been a labor of love for her great-great-granddaughter, Jane Vincent.

    Coupling her love of family history with stories of riding on the steamships from Martin Casey and other surviving family members, Jane launched into a research project that brought Philomene, her family and her daughter-in law Helen into the limelight of state history. She hopes that her efforts will help document and preserve the story of the spunky female Captain for future generations who still call the Vergennes area home.

    If you have a moment to spare, stand on the docks at MacDonough Drive, glance at the Vergennes Basin and close your eyes. In the distance, you will hear the sounds of the people at work, the steamships moving around the basin, and perhaps you will even get a glimpse of the woman who was the captain, but at the same time was very much a lady.

    Article research includes: Interviews and private collections of Jane Vincent, Interview with Martin Casey, Ferrisburgh Historical Society Archives, Articles by Jane Vincent on her famous ancestor, and personal portrayals of Philomene by four history club members since 2002.


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