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Philomene Daniels: World's First Female Steamship Captain

by The Otter Creek Basin Student History Club

A Bit Of History About Us

usThe Otter Creek Student History Club was started in September of 2002, in hopes of having a good time in the process of learning and sharing the history of our town. We meet weekly and do just that, learn about our town and the changes it has been through to make it what it is today. We are mostly made up of high school students but all are welcome.

Some of the students in the history club went to Vermont History Day this year with stories on The Fire of 1958 and Philomene Daniels, both stories have a huge impact on Vergennes history. We are hoping this website will bring you a little of what we learned.

usOur group has a two-fold purpose. We are working with the Vermont Historical Society Community History Project to capture and preserve the stories that make our community special. This involves us with our adult history counterparts, The Otter Creek Basin History Club and brings in the talents of local people and history buffs. We interview, photograph, listen, process and then record the stories we have learned. Some of our group prefers dramatic presentations, some prefer storyboards, other write great term papers, and still others love to utilize technology to tell the stories. Each of us contributes in a small way to bringing to life for our generation and those to come the wealth of history that has occurred in the Otter Creek Basin and surrounding towns.

We welcome you to our site and invite you to share a brief glimpse of our journey as we learn about the five town region we proudly call home.

Projects for the Year

  • Researching local history topics
  • Philomene Daniels: World's First Female Steamship Captain
  • Vergennes Fire of 1958: Rebuilding a Community
  • Competed in Vermont History Day and represented Vt. National History Day in play and display board divisions.
  • Participated with a skit at Vermont History Exposition: The Captain Was A Lady
  • Participated and won state level DAR Columbus Essay Competition

2004 Projects

For the 2004 school year the club will focus on researching the story of the Bixby Library, the Vergennes Opera House, the Lennox Hotel, and the strategic role of Vergennes in the War of 1812.

We will work with our adult counterparts to record and create the story of our town.

Philomene Daniels: World's First Female Steamship Captain

Steaming Out of the Past: Philomene Ostiguy Domingue Daniels Caisse and The Daniels Steamboat Line (1877-1916)

To many of us as teenagers it seems that Vergennes is a typical, quiet and sometimes predictable Vermont town. It shocked us to no end to learn that Vergennes was not only a central point in the history of the region, but that the town falls we fish in was once the center of an economic boom that was critical to the development of the region.

Our story begins with the steamship whistles that used to resound down the banks of Otter Creek. The Otter Creek Basin at Vergennes Falls was alive with the sounds of people at work. Factories making horse nails, furniture, shade-rollers, grinding crops and ironworks spanned the top of the falls. Cargo and raw materials came and went by horse-drawn wagon and the Otter Creek, which served as the highway of the region. People, cargo and mail needed to move up and down the river, out on to Lake Champlain and down the coastline to meet trains and other methods of transport. It was an exciting time to live in the little city.

The Daniels Family Business Expands

louis danielsOnto the river go Louis Daniels and his new wife Philomene. Having moved to Vergennes after their marriage in 1865, the couple settled in a home across the street from the docks. Louis took jobs for W.R. Bixby and later at the Hayes and Falardo Shop. His true love was the Otter Creek and in 1869 he writes himself that he is employed on a steamer the Curlew, which was an 80ft double decker steamer. His first license, issued to him in 1873, showed him as the engineer. In January of 1877, he bought the "Water Lily" and for the first three years had Sam Ives as a partner. On June 10, 1880 he paid his former partner, $ 150.00 for his share in the business and the Daniels Steamship Line was born.

For the first couple of years "Captain Lou" as he was known to the townspeople was always seen on the "Water Lily" with his wife at his side. She was a determined and feisty young woman who was a presence at any gathering. Dressed in the latest of fashion, she had the appearance of a lady. Her skills and determination earned her the trust and respect of her husband and brought about a change in the family business and the history of the country.

Business Booms

Louis was an enterprising businessman and wanted to expand the steamship line to include more boats and pilots. He and Philomene had two sons, Mitchell and Fred. Both of the boys were raised on the boat and learned the over twenty-seven channels that were taken in traversing the Otter Creek from the docks, up to Fort Cassin, where the Otter Creek met the Lake. By 1897, the demands of increased commerce and the beginning of excursion travel made the "Water Lily" and the second boat the Little Nellie almost obsolete. In the winter of 1897, Captain Louis built in a shed near his house the steamer " The Victor." The steamer was 63.2 feet long and could accommodate 275 passengers. With all three boats on the river, Louis needed help. It came from an unpredicted, but colorful source, his 42-year-old wife Philomene.

Philomene had always had a strong constitution and was known for saying that she was " as good a pilot as any man on the river." She also felt her skills could have her " perform any task on the boat, except for the engineer, because that would require her to wear pants, and she could not bring herself to do that. She was a lady, you know." Encouraged by her husband, and armored with her knowledge of what she was capable of, Philomene presented herself at the Coast Guard Station in Burlington, Vermont to test for a steamship pilot's license. They were at first amused, but quickly alarmed when a determined Philomene demanded, " it was her right to test, and she wasn't going home until she did." This was 1887 and history records her as the world's first licensed steamship captain. From 1887-1903 you can see images of the steamers moving up and down the Otter Creek. Many have the famed hat and dress silhouette of Captain Phil at the helm and many are of Captain Lou.

The Death of Captain Lou Forces Helen to Become the World's Second Licensed Steamship Pilot

family photo
Daniels Family Photo: Mitchell, his wife, Helen Lavigne Daniels, their daughter, Cecile, born in 1903 and Philomene. (Courtesy of Jane Vincent)

Much of our understanding of the life of Philomene comes to us through the work and efforts of her great great granddaughter Jane Vincent. Jane grew up hearing stories of Captain Phil, but didn't seriously begin documenting and recording her ancestor's story until about four years ago. She interviewed surviving family members, and spent countless hours in records from here to Canada tracing the path of Captain Phil. Ms. Vincent even began performing as her ancestor in re-enactments at local history museums. Many people are shocked at the refined lady-like image Vincent shows, as most would guess Philomene was more a tomboy and rough around the edges. Remaining photographs and stories passed down document that while she piloted the boat as a man would, she was dressed in the latest of fashion and insisted on appearing as a lady. "I was never one to get out in front of a group of people," says Jane Vincent. "It's as if she is giving me a push to get out there. I feel deeply inside that she wasn't given enough credits in history."

graveThe untimely death of Captain Louis in 1903 brought into reality another chapter of the Daniels' steamship line. Mitchell's wife Helen was a petite woman who excelled in the tasks of a homemaker. She could cook, sew and often made dresses and cakes for the best families in town. She had eight children and kept an impeccable home. While she had worked the boats extensively herself with her husband, she did not have Philomene's drive to work outside the home. At the death of Louis she approached Philomene and offered to help out by testing and taking her place as the third pilot in the family business. She and Philomene continued to pilot the steamers until the business was turned over to Louis and Helen full time.

Steering A Course Into History

Our research shows that the Daniels Family Steamship line stopped in 1916. The development of the horseless carriage changed the way that goods and services moved in the Otter Creek Basin. The era of the steamers was over and the business closed. Philomene lived until 1926 and was buried in the Catholic cemetery in Vergennes. Her stories and memory were really not heralded until her descendants began tracing the family history and recording the life of this lively and determined woman. The Burlington Free Press and Times of May 5, 1887 called her "undoubtedly the first woman to receive a pilot's license in this country, if not the world." Captain Phil's career opened our eyes to a time when Vergennes was the economic center of the region and the Falls was alive with daily commerce and business.

boat rideOur favorite story was when Captain Phil found herself facing one particularly obnoxious male passenger who followed her into the wheelhouse and informed her that she was "trying" to pilot the ship. After asking the man to leave four times, Captain Phil altered his attitude by pushing him overboard. When he was fished out he had a new appreciation for her authority and did not question her again!

As a history club we have turned our understanding of this colorful local person into a play, which we presented at Vermont History Day. It was well received and will again be presented at the National level competition in College Park, Maryland in June of this year. We cannot help but think that this must please Captain Phil. She was ahead of her time, a strong believer in doing what was necessary for her family to be prosperous. It would tickle her, we think, for the country to learn that the captain of the Daniels Steamship line did indeed wear petticoats and was very much a lady.


Interviews with Jane Vincent: Great-great granddaughter of Captain Phil.

Interviews with Martin Casey: Grandson of Helen Lavigne Daniels.

Research Vincent Family collection of documents and photographs.

Bob Mitchell Photo collection

Nina Bacon: History Club collection

Maritime Museum: The Captain Is a Lady: Jane Vincent recreation of her famous relative.

Grave site gathering of family: Dedication of new tombstone honoring Philomene's accomplishments

"The Captain Wore Petticoats" by Jane Vincent: "Historic Roots: A Magazine of Vermont History", Vol. 5, April 2000.