The Ticonderoga is the last surviving example of the hundreds of walking-beam- powered steamboats that plied the nation’s waters from the nineteenth century into the early decades of the twentieth. It played a significant role in both trade and tourism throughout its long working life.
U.S. Route 7
P.O. Box 10
Shelburne, VT 05482
ph.: (802) 985-3346; TTY Relay: (800) 251-0191
fax: (802) 985-2331
Web site: www.shelburnemuseum.org
The Ticonderoga was built for passenger service on Lake Champlain by the Champlain Transportation Company, a firm that owned and operated two other steamers on the lake. Ironically, the Ticonderoga–which was the last such steamboat to be constructed on the lake–was in fact intended as a replacement for the last wooden steamer on Lake Champlain, the Maquam. The W & A Fletcher Company of Hoboken, New Jersey, was contracted to build the vessel at a cost of $95,500. In actuality, Fletcher only manufactured the Ticonderoga’s engines, since the fabrication of the steel hull was subcontracted to a Newburgh, New York, firm, the T. S. Marvel Shipbuilding Company. The Ticonderoga’s hull was “built” twice. First, Marvel fashioned the necessary sections of the hull and put them together as they would fit in the finished vessel. Then the hull was taken apart to facilitate shipping through the Champlain Canal. It was at Shelburne Harbor, Vermont, that final assembly was completed when a work gang from Marvel riveted the various sections back together. With its steel hull securely riveted together, the Ticonderoga was launched on April 18, 1906, at 3:08
The completed steamboat was an odd combination of old and new aspects of industrial technology. On one hand, there was nothing remarkable regarding its dimensions. With its 220-foot length, 57.5-foot beam (width), and 7-foot draft (depth), the Ticonderoga was dwarfed by its 262-foot sister ship, the Vermont III. Further, while its one-cylinder, coal-powered, vertical-beam engine could drive the vessel from a cruising speed of seventeen miles per hour to a maximum speed of twenty-three miles per hour, Robert Fulton had proven this technology nearly a century earlier. On the other hand, that nearly obsolete steam-engine design provided the necessary power for the vessel’s two General Electric dynamos (generators). These dynamos allowed the Ticonderoga to boast electric lighting and a two-million-candlepower searchlight when such items were still novelties to many people. Though not conceived as an overnight vessel, the Ticonderoga nevertheless had five staterooms, and its plush stateroom hall was generously finished in such fine woods as butternut and cherry. With such impressive features, it comes as no surprise that the final cost of the steamboat came to $162,232.65.
With its wide beam and shallow draft, the Ticonderoga was the ideal passenger vessel for plying the waters of Lake Champlain. Its capacity was 1,070 persons, but in a limited sense the Ticonderoga was also a freighter of sorts. Due to the importance of farming to the local economy, the vessel carried shipments of livestock (horses, sheep, and cattle) and apples when they were in season. The steamboat could also ferry up to twenty automobiles, even though it was not built for this purpose. Its most unusual cargo was a three-ton elephant named Minnie, which the Ticonderoga transported from Burlington to Plattsburgh in 1913 as part of the Aborn Comic Opera Company.
For its first ten years, the vessel followed a route that ran from St. Albans down to Port Henry. A typical season would begin in April and last into November; the steamer was docked for the duration of winter. In order to ensure its safe operation as a passenger vessel, the Ticonderoga was inspected prior to each season by the U.S. Steamboat Service. In addition, the master, the pilots, and the engineers all had to be recertified for their licenses each year. The twenty-nine-member crew, who lived on board the vessel, maintained safety standards throughout the season with weekly fire and lifeboat drills. However, even with such constant vigilance, steaming through this mountain lake was not without its hazards, and the Ticonderoga had its share of accidents. The first was relatively minor, a lightning strike in 1912 that damaged the electrical circuit, the stern staff, and some decking. By far the worst occurred in August of 1919, when the vessel became stranded on Point au Fer Reef and began to leak. The three hundred passengers, who were taken to shore in lifeboats, were uninjured, but the Ticonderoga suffered serious damage in the accident. Its seams opened up, and it sank until it settled onto the reef. Repairs cost $5,395, and the vessel was out of service until the following year.
The Ticonderoga was built to fill a specific economic niche: Because of the scarcity of roads, automobiles, and bridges in the Lake Champlain area, the steamboat could count on a ready supply of its main cargo–people. It was a successful vessel, and this is attested by the fact that in its best season (1917) it carried some 80,896 passengers and 2,762 cars. What its owners could not control, though, were forces that were rapidly altering the world at large and the economic conditions that had made the Ticonderoga possible. The first economic jolt in the Ticonderoga’s long career occurred during World War I, when the Federal Railroad Administration took control of the vessel. Because of this, the Ticonderoga’s owners were forced to suspend excursions throughout 1918. While this enabled the vessel to shuttle weapons and soldiers between army bases in Plattsburgh, New York, and Colchester, Vermont, it decimated passenger business on the lake. In 1918, the passenger total plummeted to 49,457.
More lasting and, ultimately, more damaging consequences ensued from two events that occurred in 1929. The first was the August opening of the Champlain Bridge, which joined Crown Point, New York, and Chimney Point, Vermont. With the increasing availability of the automobile, driving represented a significant saving in time over steamboat travel. The second economic milestone of that year was the stock market crash of October, an event that heralded the long economic decline that came to be known as the Great Depression. Due to the combined effects of the new bridge and the economic collapse, passenger totals for the Ticonderoga sank from 45,855 in 1929 to just 26,611 in 1932. Because a steamboat was so costly to operate–with expenses for fuel, maintenance, and personnel–the Ticonderoga became less and less profitable. Economic conditions deteriorated to such an extent that both the Ticonderoga and the Vermont III were taken out of service from 1933 through 1935.
The economy eventually improved enough for the Ticonderoga to resume regular service on July 2, 1936, but the steamboat era on Lake Champlain was quickly passing. The Delaware and Hudson Railroad, the parent firm of the Champlain Transportation Company, sold the latter to Horace Corbin on February 25, 1937. Under the new ownership, the Ticonderoga was transformed into a showboat. More bars were added, the once-elegant dining room became a dance floor, and dance bands performed on the aging vessel. When the nation entered World War II, business increased because the Ticonderoga’s main competitor–the automobile–was severely hampered by gasoline rationing and limited production. On the other hand, coal, the fuel for the steamer’s huge engine, was restricted much less stringently and thus was more easily obtained. Such wartime conditions, though, were by their very nature emergency measures, and the familiar financial woes reasserted themselves with the end of the war. Cheap and available gasoline and a vigorous automobile industry had returned, along with one new problem: a critical shortage of engineers skilled in the operation and maintenance of the vertical walking-beam engine.
With increased competition came the inevitable decline in business, and the venerable steamer found itself changing hands several times over the next few years. When, in 1948, Corbin could no longer make the steamboat pay, he sold it and his other vessels to James G. Wolcott, Lewis P. Evans, Jr., and Richard H. Walhams. However, they were more concerned with the ferry business than with an obsolete steamer, so the Ticonderoga saw little activity that year. The usual fate for old steamers was either conversion to some other use or a one-way trip to the scrap yard. Fortunately, intervention came in the form of Martin Fisher, who bought the vessel at auction in May, 1949. His father, Alanson, had once been master of the Ticonderoga, and his hope was to tap into nostalgia for the lake excursions of the past. Yet even with his determination to keep the old steamer in operation, business continued to decline. Diesel-powered ferries transported more than a quarter million people on Lake Champlain in 1948, and they were also able to move more than eighty thousand cars. The Ticonderoga, with its expensive appetite for coal and limited space for automobiles, now had to contend with docking fees so exorbitant that it frequently had to shuttle between different docks.
Once again, however, the Ticonderoga was saved from the scrap heap. Community concern for the vessel was demonstrated by the Burlington Junior Chamber of Commerce, which created a Civic Betterment Fund to help pay off the vessel’s debts and began a campaign to raise ten thousand dollars to ready the vessel for the upcoming season. The Junior Chamber of Commerce was instrumental in having a new dock constructed for the Ticonderoga, and its members even volunteered their time to paint the vessel. Even the best intentions, though, were not enough to sustain this relic from Lake Champlain’s past. It was only through the intercession of philanthropists Electra Webb and her husband James Watson Webb that the Ticonderoga survived. On January 21, 1951, the Webbs purchased the old steamer from the Fisher Steamboat Company to add to their growing collection of Americana at the Shelburne Museum. The Webbs bought the vessel with the intention of maintaining it as the last active steamboat on Lake Champlain, and for a time the Ticonderoga continued in this guise, as well as serving as a floating museum for some items from their collections. Passenger totals nearly doubled during the three seasons of operation under the new owner, from 17,500 in 1951 to 30,000 in 1953. This increased business, however, was not sufficient to offset rising expenses and the lack of people skilled in the operation of steamboats.
Once the decision was made to cease operation of the vessel on the lake, the question became a matter of how to maintain the Ticonderoga and integrate it with the rest of the museum collection. The museum eventually made the momentous decision to move the steamboat, in one piece, two miles overland from the lake to the museum grounds. Merritt-Chapman and Scot, an engineering firm, began the process at Shelburne Harbor by excavating a 450-foot-long basin, at the bottom of which sat a large cradle. A tugboat maneuvered the old vessel into position on November 6, 1954, and as the water was pumped out of the basin the steamer came to rest on the cradle. W. B. Hill Company was subcontracted to do the actual moving of the boat, which began on January 31, 1955. With the Ticonderoga placed on sixteen flatbed railroad cars, a winch mounted on a large truck slowly pulled the steamer over dual tracks that were laid out in front. The “Ti”–as the vessel was now affectionately called–reached its final berth on April 6, 1955. Thanks to a major restoration in the 1990’s, visitors boarding the Ticonderoga will discover the charm and elegance of steamer travel in the 1920’s. This popular museum attraction is open year-round, with reduced hours from late October to late May.
Brouwer, Norman J. International Register of Historic Ships. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1985. Gives the steamer’s specifications and a brief history. Strum, Richard M.“Ticonderoga”: Lake Champlain Steamboat. Shelburne, Vt.: Shelburne Museum, 1998. Provides a detailed account of the vessel and its times. Includes both color and black-and-white illustrations.