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 determines a person’s ability to handle the life of a keeper and earn the 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 transporting cargo worldwide. He was a large, muscular man born in 1829. He was no stranger to rescuing crew members, saving distressed vessels during severe storms and hurricanes, and 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 Janeiro with a load of tea. The vessel’s captain found that many crew members had stolen much of the cargo and sold it on the streets for their own personal benefit. As they were heading home from the 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 others could drive the men below deck. When they arrived at the homeport, they brought up the mutineers individually and had them shackled in irons for the authorities. 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 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 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, hoping to either ride out the storm or believe they would perish. Knowing that the vessel could easily be blown over into the raging sea, Wakefield secured his family as best he could. He crept across the deck through the heavy winds and constant waves washing over it, cut away the rigging to free the sails, and could 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 dealing in ship supplies as a ship chandler. His business grew, his popularity for being honest and fair, and his maritime knowledge.
One of the most incredible 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 period, the government usually frowned upon and sometimes would remove those keepers attempting 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 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 could barely steer the craft to the Burlington breakwater to get his four other passengers, one being his daughter, of 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 could rely on his area knowledge 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.
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 are 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 along Lake Champlain’s shoreline.
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 relax and enjoy the views.
The Rise and Demise of the Largest Sailing Ships: Stories of the Six and Seven-Masted Coal Schooners of New England. In the early 1900s, New England shipbuilders constructed the world’s largest sailing ships amid social and political reforms. These giants were the ten original six-masted coal schooners and one colossal seven-masted vessel, built to carry massive quantities of coal and building supplies and measured longer than a football field! This book, balanced with plenty of color and vintage images, showcases the historical accounts that followed these mighty ships.
My 300-page book, Lighthouses and Coastal Attractions of Southern New England: Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, provides memorable 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, and even lighthouses where you can stay overnight. Like the story of James Wakefield above, you’ll also find plenty of stories of shipwrecks, rescues, and special lighthouse keepers. Lighthouses and their nearby attractions are divided into regions for weekly and weekend explorers. You’ll also find plenty of stories of hauntings around lighthouses.
My 300-page book, Lighthouses and Coastal Attractions of Northern New England: New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont, provides extraordinary human interest stories from each of the 76 lighthouses, along with plenty of indoor and outdoor coastal attractions you can explore and tours. Lighthouses and their nearby attractions are divided into regions for weekly and weekend explorers. Attractions and tours also include whale watching tours, lighthouse tours, windjammer sailing tours and adventures, unique parks and museums, and lighthouses where you can stay overnight. There are also stories of haunted lighthouses in these regions.
Included are more details of the life and legacy of Keeper James Wakefield, and his most famous rescue of the General Butler at Burlington Breakwater Light, along with over 50 other stories in my book New England Lighthouses: Famous Shipwrecks, Rescues & Other Tales. This image-rich book also contains vintage images provided by the Coast Guard and various organizations and paintings by six famous artists of the Coast Guard. You’ll find this book and the lighthouse tourism books from the publisher Schiffer Books or in many fine bookstores like Barnes and Noble.
Copyright © Allan Wood Photography, do not reproduce without permission. All rights reserved.
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