- Historic Sites
Sidewheeler For Shelburne
A determined collector brings a steamboat to her museum of Americana—by rail.
April 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 3
In the gray of In late December, 1954, a traveler happening along Thompson’s Road, which skirts Shelburne Bay on the Vermont side of Lake Champlain, could have seen a steamboat suspended as if by sky hooks on a horizon of dry land. He might have dismissed this as a mirage or a fantasy, but as it happened there was a steamboat hanging on a horizon of dry land. It was the 892-ton Ticonderoga , just beginning her final excursion two miles across highways, snow-swept cornfields and railroad tracks to the grounds of the Shelburne Museum.
For almost fifty years since she was built in the shipyard at Burlington the Ticonderoga had been the pride of the lake. With her wide, bulging decks, her paddle wheels and walking beam, her huge polished engine and deep whistle, she was the last remnant on the lake of the great age of ornate travel. Had she vanished there would not have been another pure example of the beam-engine sidewheeler left in America, for the Ticonderoga is the last coal-burner left. Two other sidewheel passenger packets, the Robert Fulton and the Alexander Hamilton , although modernized to run by oil, are still afloat on the Husdon, but soon the ravages of time must surely close their logbooks.
To save the Ticonderoga from the wreckers who had broken up all of her 28 predecessors on Lake Champlain, the Shelburne Museum bought the ship lour years ago, intending to keep her in operation. For three summers the Ticonderoga made regular trips, serving most of the communities along the lake, and in the 1953 season carried 50,000 passengers. Traveling the long and picturesque lake, they might admire the corridors of butternut and cherry, the spacious promenades and elegant dining saloon; they could lounge and dance and sip drinks at the old-fashioned bar. The Ti was not only regarded with the tenderest affection; she was breaking even on operating expenses.
Surely this is wonderful, reasoned the enthusiasts, we can go on forever. And consequently, when the news came that the Ticonderoga had jettisoned her last ashes, and presently that a fortune was to be spent in moving her to Shelburne, there were a number of loud, if ill-informed, outcries.
“Why not spend all that money on keeping her going?”
Why not? Alas, it takes more than meeting operating expenses to run a steamship. There are enormous outlays for upkeep. There are replacement parts, which are about as easy to find as galleon rigging, or axles for Parthian chariots. When a boiler burst on one occasion, and an old-fashioned boiler-maker was needed, an English railroad man finally did the job. He was the needle"-in-the-haystack to find, which brings up the basic reason for the Ticonderoga ’s final and enforced retirement. Not only are sidewheelers anachronisms, but so are the men who operate them. The final captain and chief engineer were nearly eighty and no one is taking up this kind of navigation in these jet-propelled days. There are precious few hard-coal firemen who know how to feed buckwheat to old-fashioned, turtle-back, fire-tube boilers so that most of the heat doesn’t go up the flue unused. (Coal costs four times what it did in 1906 when the Ti was new.) There are no young men to replace the oldsters for several very cogent reasons. Cast aside the simple economics of a three-months-a-year job for a moment and consider merely the rules of the United States Marine Inspection Service. They require six years’ satisfactory experience to qualify a chief engineer. Multiply the total of six by four—to allow for only three months’ service in the year— and it takes 24 years to replace a man like Chief Ralph Bigelow. That is why the decision was made to move the Ticonderoga to a dry-land mooring.
The engineering firm of Merritt-Chapman & Scott had never handled a job like this before but neither had anyone else in maritime history. At the head of Shelburne Bay, where Lake Champlain comes closest to Shelburne Village, a berthing basin was dug out, long enough to accommodate the Ti ’s 220 feet. Then, with her paddle wheel idle but with her haunting whistle sending up plumes of steam (provided by a small donkey engine fired up for purely sentimental reasons), the steamer journeyed behind a tug from the Burlington shipyard to the basin. There she was sealed in by a high dike of clay.
By means of an ingenious lock system she was pumped up 25 feet higher than the level of the lake and floated onto steel cradles resting on railroad under-carriages, which in turn rolled on two sets of tracks. In this manner she began her journey through the woods and fields two miles to the museum. Track was laid ahead as soon as it was torn up behind this bizarre bit of rolling stock.