- 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.
The stresses and strains of this operation were borne no less by the contractors than by the trustees of the Shelburne Museum, particularly its zestful president, Electra H. Webb, who spent several sleepless nights before summoning up the courage to give final approval to the plans for moving the Ticonderoga overland. “We must preserve the boat,” she concluded, “and I think we had better go ahead and move it, but this is the biggest decision I have made since I said yes to Pa 45 years ago.”
“Pa” is J. Watson Webb, great-grandson of Commodore Vanderbilt, ten-goal polo player and master of foxhounds. Forty-five years ago Electra Webb was Electra Havemeyer, daughter of Henry O. Havemeyer, founder of the American Sugar Refining Company. As early as the age of sixteen she acquired a taste for collecting, not the Continental art in the Metropolitan Museum’s Havemeyer Collection for which her parents are remembered today, but Americana. One of her earliest selections was a cigar-store Indian which she brought home and lovingly placed on the piazza alongside her mother’s Chinese bird cages and bronzes filled with rare ferns. Her mother stared at it in horror.
“How can you, who have been brought up with Rembrandts and Manets, collect such American trash?” she demanded. In criticizing her daughter for nonconformism Mrs. Havemeyer was being a bit forgetful, however. An indomitable figure who was one of the United States’ most ardent suffragettes, she had once been jailed in Washington for picketing the White House.
The Indian was allowed to stay and Electra went on to fill her own room with objects of American folk art, and after she was married, crammed more into her house in Westbury, Long Island. She then had no thought of a museum—she was just collecting things she liked. She filled the passing years with five children and twelve grandchildren. Accompanying her husband on his hunting expeditions, she made seven trips to Alaska and bagged two Kodiak bears. No less a horsewoman, she rode to the hounds with her husband every year until the Second World War when her abundant energies were taken up as director of the Red Cross blood program for New York City.
It was not until 1947 that the Shelburne Museum was begun. In that year the question arose of what to do with a fine collection of old carriages at Shelburne Farms, the 4,000-acre estate which Mr. Webb’s father had established in the Eighties. The Webbs decided to build a horseshoe barn out of old timbers and open it to the public as a museum of the carriage-maker’s art. This was the start. Soon Mrs. Webb was adding other new buildings to house the treasures of early America which by this time were overflowing her home and even the horse stalls of her barns.
The first venture which suggested operations on the Ticonderoga scale resulted from her determination to save the last double-lane covered bridge with footpath remaining in the state of Vermont. For over a hundred years it had spanned the Lamoille River at Cambridge, Vermont, and the question was: could a 168-foot bridge be successfully dismantled, moved 31 miles to Shelburne and re-erected at the museum grounds? Mrs. Webb proved it could be done. The bridge was placed over dry land, leading from the highway to the museum grounds, and a lily pond was dug out under it to make things look realistic.
Shortly thereafter an old Vermont Yankee was seen one morning contemplating this marvel of engineering and the lily pond beneath it. A gray-haired lady drove up and the old Vermonter called to her: “Do you work here?”
“I certainly do,” replied Electra Webb.
“Have you ever met Mrs. Webb?”
“Crazy, ain’t she?”
As Mrs. Webb considered how to reply to this, she was relieved to find that the old gentleman was going to answer his own question. He pointed to the lily pond under the bridge and declared: “It’d been a damn sight cheaper if she’d just filled up the hole!”
Despite the fact that a Vermonter is chemically unable to bring himself to a compliment, the Green Mountain State is one where early structures are held most dear, almost in reverence, and there was from the start a good deal of general satisfaction about the saving of the bridge. It was soon joined by a stagecoach inn which had served wayfarers on the turnpike between New York and Montreal during the earliest days of the Union. Finally out of business in 1948, the 165-year-old inn was screened by a tangle of trees and shrubs from the old stage road, now a broad highway running through the town of Charlotte, a few miles south of Shelburne. Dismantled, transported and re-erected, beam by beam and brick by brick (there were 40,000 of these in the two chimneys), the building was swiftly transformed from a bleached shell into the graceful hostelry it once was, even to the ballroom running across the second floor. It now contains a most impressive collection of American sculptural folk art—figureheads, weather vanes, trade signs, circus figures, eagles and other crude wooden masterpieces.
In rapid succession came several early dwellings in stone and wood—a country school, a brick meeting-house, a store, a three-story Shaker building, even a tiny two-cell jail constructed entirely of Vermont slate. With floors also of slate, a riveted iron door and a lone small window which succeeds in maintaining a perpetual twilight within, the jail shares with the other buildings the spare charm of early north-country architecture.
Still awaiting the attentions of the museum construction crew, who would now rather work with hand-hewn beams and wooden pins than with two-by-fours and nails, are an up-and-down sawmill and a carrousel complete with hand-carved animals, boiler, steam engine and calliope, believed to have been made for the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. It is likely also that a memorial building to her parents will be erected to house the paintings that Mrs. Webb withheld at the time the Havemeyer Collection went to the Metropolitan.
It is readily evident that the scope of these buildings in terms of character and period is wide. Some of them, like the Cavendish salt box house and the Vermont House of stone, are furnished according to their periods, while the so-called Variety Unit and Town Barn contain collections of dolls, pewter, china, glass, toys, quilts, rugs, tools and a number of other categories. The whole is nevertheless curiously unifying and artistic in effect, which may be attributed to the impact of one person’s imagination.
Arriving early and staying late, Mrs. Webb daily works her way through a welter of details; there is building work, for example, and a steady program of decorating and furnishing, and after a day of business, a large family to preside over. But she is a woman with a boundless capacity for taking on something else, of which the story of the Ticonderoga is a fine example.
The old steamer, resting in an artificial lake, will be the most striking feature of the Shelburne landscape. But it will not stand in maritime solitude among the treasures of the land, for nearby in the museum grounds, in all its faded, early-Victorian glory, rises the old Colchester Lighthouse. For many decades, before modern technology spawned the automatic flashing beacon, it stood guard over a reef in Lake Champlain—until Mrs. Webb steamed by one day on the Ticonderoga and made a mental note that it ought to be preserved. When the lighthouse was declared surplus by the Coast Guard it was dismantled by the museum crew, towed in sections on pontoons to the mainland, trucked to the museum twenty miles south and re-erected. Filled with ship paintings and other memorabilia of lake travel, it will make a fitting companion to the sidewheeler which used to pass it every day on its progress up the lake.