Amid the incredible natural beauty of Lake Champlain there came in 1906, a beauty of another sort, the Lake Champlain steamboat Ticonderoga. Lake Champlain has always offered an easy water route from New York and Vermont to Montreal, Canada and Quebec City through the Richelieu River.
The Lake has been traversed by boat since Native Americans paddled across it. It has been the scene of fierce battles and attempted invasions. For one golden era, it was the pathway for steamboats. For 144 years, travel on the lake was dominated by a line of twenty-nine steamboats that plied taking passengers and freight from Whitehall New York to St John’s in Quebec.
Just one year after Robert Fulton started the world’s first regularly operating steamer on the Hudson River in 1804, John and James Winan, who had helped Fulton construct the steamer Claremont, headed for Lake Champlain to try their hand at doing the same on Lake Champlain. They journeyed to Burlington, Vermont where they built Vermont I in 1808 and started the first regularly operating steamboat on Lake Champlain. And, it was also the second regularly operating steamboat, after the Claremont, in the entire world. The Vermont I escaped capture by the British during the War of 1812 when it was being used by the American fleet commander to shuttle troops and supplies to forces around the lake. After the war steamboat travel on the lake increased. In 1823 the Champlain Canal was completed connecting Lake Champlain at Whitehall with the Hudson River.
At 3:08 in the afternoon of April 18th, 1906 the newest steamer of the Champlain Transportation Company was launched at the shipyard in Shelburne Harbor in Vermont. She is 220 feet long, 59 feet wide and displaced 892 tons. The Ticonderoga is powered by two coal-fired boilers. She has a vertical beam steam engine and side-paddle wheels which move her along at roughly 14 knots. Her crew consisted of 28.
Unlike so many of her predecessors, the Ticonderoga was built of steel. Hull construction was done by the T. S. Marvel Shipbuilding Company of Newburgh, New York on the Hudson River. In September the hull was fabricated, pieced together then disassembled. The parts were loaded onto canal boats and taken to Shelburne Harbor. A crew from the T.S. Marvel Shipbuilding was waiting at the shipyard and set to work riveting the sections together. About seventy men worked on the ship. A 1500-horsepower steam engine was built by the Fletcher Company and transported by canal boat to Shelburne shipyard. Two electric dynamos were also installed to provide electrical power for the ship. By the beginning of 1908 the Ticonderoga was completed and ready for service. Her total cost at the time was $162,232.65. In today’s dollar that would be $4,472,960 million dollars.
The Ticonderoga was a grand and beautiful sight steaming across the lake with flags flying and steam billowing from her stack. She was a smooth-running ship. Passengers recall a sense of calmness, even though the paddlewheels themselves were very forbidding pieces of equipment. The passengers said there was just a “whishh, whishh of the steam exhaust.” For more than a decade she ran the route between St. Albans, Plattsburg, Burlington, Essex, Westport and Port Henry. There were also excursions for various events that took off her route. In Sept of 1913, she transported Minnie, the 3-ton performing Elephant for the Aborn Comic Opera Company from Burlington to Plattsburgh.
1917 was the busiest year for the Ticonderoga. Between April and November, she carried some 80,896 passengers between Burlington and Plattsburg. That same year she carried some 2,762 automobiles. It was relatively smooth sailing until 1929 when the Champlain Bridge between Chimney Point, Vermont and Crown Point New York was opened. The bridge combined with the stock market crash threatened the steamboat business. Passengers fell from 45,855 in 1929 to 26,611 in 1932.Car transportation fell from 5,222 to 2,466. By 1933 the Ticonderoga was out of service and tied up for the three years. In 1936 a noble effort to put her back in service was tried but was a failure. Horace Cobin tried to turn the Ticonderoga into a showboat and eventually a party boat. In 1949 the Ticonderoga was once again rescued from the scrap heap by Martin Fisher, the son of Alanson who had at one time been master of the Ticonderoga. It was a noble effort, but it too failed. Once again headed for the scrap heap she came to the attention of businessman and Vermont Historian, Ralph Nading Hill. Hill with the help of the Junior Chamber of Commerce spearheaded a campaign to “Save the Ti.” With prospects for her continue survival looking very dim, Hill interested Electra Webb, heiress to American Sugar Refining Company and Vanderbilt interests in saving the Ti. Mrs. Webb founded the Shelburne Museum in 1947. Mrs. Webb bought the Ticonderoga for $20,000. For a time, it was used as an excursion vessel by the museum. Then as a floating museum. By 1951 the Ticonderoga was back in service once again carrying passengers on Lake Champlain. In 1951, she carried 17,500 passengers and by 1930 the total had risen to 30,000. Impressive but not enough to cover the costs.
Then on Sept 20th, 1953 the Ticonderoga was docked at Shelburne Harbor for the last time. But she was not headed for the scrap yard this time. Possibilities were discussed and it was decided the Ticonderog
a would become the centerpiece of the new Shelburne Museum. To accomplish this, the ship would have to be transported overland. In 1954 the Museum contracted with Merritt-Chapman Scott to move the vessel. Once on the cradle, W.B. Hill Company was brought in to make the actual move. On January 31st, 1955, the journey begun and moved over a frozen swamp, across highways and over railroad tracks.
After weeks of tediously slow movement over two sets of tracks being laid down and picked up then moved forward, Ticonderoga made it to her final location, a specially designed area at the Shelburne Museum. It became obvious by 1980s that the Ticonderoga would need a major restoration. J. Warren McClure and his wife Lois donated $1.7 million dollars. That gift and additional monies from Ralph Nading Hill were used to undertake the restoration. Ironically, the Ticonderoga now is visited by more people annually than she ever carried at the height of the steamboat era.
It is well worth a trip to the Shelburne Museum by boat or by car to see the Ticonderoga. To walk her decks and comprehend the majestic of this side-paddle wheel passenger steamer. She is one of only two surviving steamers from the golden age of steamboats.
For more information about the Ticonderoga and the Shelburne Museum, contact www.sheburnemusem.org.