James Wakefield: Vermont’s Most Famous Lighthouse Keeper on Lake Champlain – Part 1
Vermont’s most famous Lighthouse keeper was James Wakefield, of the Burlington Breakwater lights. Sometimes fate steps in to determine a person’s ability to handle the life of a keeper and earn respect of the local community they serve.
Before James Wakefield became Burlington’s lighthouse keeper, he had spent many years as a sailor from England and as a second mate to various captains on voyages involving transporting cargo all around the world. He was a large strong man born in 1829, and was no stranger to incidents of rescuing crewmembers, aiding in saving distressed vessels during severe storms and hurricanes, and in handling drunk and unruly captains.
One incidence, in 1853, Wakefield was sailing as the second mate on the clipper ship Olivia from New Orleans to Rio de Janiero, with a load of tea. The captain of the vessel found that much of the cargo had been stolen by many crewmembers and sold on the streets for their own personal benefit. As they were heading home from port, the captain angrily told the crew he was withholding their rations of coffee and wages, which made the crew attempt a mutiny of the vessel. The captain, Wakefield, and a few others were able to drive the men below deck. They brought up the mutineers one by one and had them shackled in irons for the authorities when they arrived at the homeport. After the incident, Wakefield decided to end his career at sea, as he had been on many excursions since he was thirteen, and with his family would spend the rest of his years in America.
As twists of fate always seemed to follow him, his lifesaving skills would be tested again. After the incident on the Olivia, Wakefield and his family left England and sailed across the Atlantic in relatively calm weather. As they sailed off the coast of Newfoundland, they became caught in an unsuspected hurricane. The incredible force of the winds tore out the masts causing the ship to be bashed about as the wind picked up the rigging and sails. The officers and crew took refuge between the decks in hoping of either riding out the storm, or simply believed they were going to perish. Knowing that the vessel could easily be blown over into the raging sea, Wakefield secured his family as best he could, then gallantly crept across the deck through the heavy winds and constant waves washing over the deck, cut away the rigging to free the sails, and was able to save the ship, crew, and its passengers by keeping the vessel afloat during the storm.
After spending a few years in New York near his brother, in 1857, he decided to stay in Burlington, Vermont, where he developed a prosperous business in making and repairing sails, and in dealing in ship supplies as a ship chandler. His business grew as well as his popularity for being honest and fair, and for his maritime knowledge.
One of the greatest rescue stories in the Burlington Vermont region involves the wreck of the General Butler on Lake Champlain and the rescue of its grateful survivors by James Wakefield. During this time period, the government usually frowned upon and sometimes would remove those keepers who would attempt to make additional income from other occupations. James Wakefield was not only the lighthouse keeper of the Burlington Breakwater lights, who lived near the shore with his family, but also as mentioned, kept quite busy with his very successful business in repairing ships, which was apparently allowed by the government.
On December 9, 1876, as the General Butler sailed towards Burlington, a powerful winter gale storm was approaching and came full force upon them as they came towards Burlington Harbor. As night came upon the region, the captain was barely able to steer the craft to the Burlington breakwater to get his 4 other passengers, one being his daughter, off the sinking wreck onto the breakwater, which was still a mile from shore, before the vessel sank beneath the waves. Wakefield was notified as a crowd gathered near the shore, as he grabbed a lifeboat with his son and rowed out through the gale force winds to the stranded survivors. He was able to rely on his knowledge of the area to maneuver the boat to the survivors, bringing them all safely to shore. After receiving medical treatment for hyperthermia and exhaustion, all the survivors recovered and James Wakefield and his son became the local heroes of Burlington.
Note: A full account of the rescue of the General Butler will be provided in the next March 2019 blog.
Exploring Burlington’s Waterfront
Burlington is Vermont’s largest city that offers plenty of activities, events, specialty shops, restaurants, artist’s galleries, and museums, especially along the streets of The Church Street Marketplace. There also plenty of trails for bikers and hikers inside the city and along Burlington’s Waterfront Park, where you can view the Burlington Breakwater lighthouses from the shore, walk along the boardwalk, or take boats out around the harbor and Lake Champlain. Burlington’s Waterfront Bike Path is an 8-mile route that runs along the shoreline of Lake Champlain.
The Spirit Of Ethan Allen III is a 424-passenger ship that goes past Juniper Island lighthouse and the Burlington Breakwater lighthouses on their Scenic Narrated Cruises, offered 4 times a day during the summer season, taking you around Burlington’s Lake Champlain islands where you can just relax and enjoy the views.
My 300-page book, Lighthouses and Coastal Attractions of Southern New England: Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, provides special human interest stories from each of the 92 lighthouses, along with plenty of indoor and outdoor coastal attractions you can explore. These include whale watching excursions, lighthouse tours, windjammer sailing tours and adventures, special parks and museums, haunted lighthouse stories, and lighthouses you can stay overnight. You’ll also find plenty of stories of shipwrecks and rescues. Lighthouses and their nearby attractions are divided into regions for all you weekend explorers.
You’ll find this story and many others in my book New England Lighthouses: Famous Shipwrecks, Rescues, and Other Tales. The book also contains, along with my photographs, vintage images provided by the Coast Guard and various organizations, and paintings by six famous artists of the Coast Guard.
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