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A Blast from the Past: Little City's Philomene Ostiguy Daniels Caisse and the Daniels Steamboat Line (1877-1916)


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Tuesday August 27, 2013

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.

 


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