In 1809, about two hundred years after Samuel de Champlain first saw the lake that would later bear his name, the steamboat Vermont was launched. The Vermont was a new kind of vessel – not powered by paddles, oars, wind, or horses. It was the power of steam that moved this large ship around the lake. The Vermont was the first steamboat to begin commercial service on any lake in the world, and with its launching it changed the course of lake travel and began what would be almost 150 years of steamboats on Lake Champlain.
Although waterways were also used by sailing sloops, barges, and ferries, steamships proved to be the quickest mode of water transportation. With the linking of Lake Champlain to the Hudson River via the Champlain Canal in 1823 water traffic coming and going from Vermont and the Adirondack Coast increased dramatically. Steamships became bigger and more luxurious, though not always more comfortable. In addition in the early days of railroads in the North Country, steamboats were an essential link in connecting rail lines on both sides of Lake Champlain.
In 1825 the one-way fare between Burlington and Port Kent on the steamer General Greene was $2.00 for a “four wheel pleasure carriage on springs, drawn by two horses, including the driver.” An ox, horse, or person traveling alone paid only 50 cents. A ferry ride between the same two cities today costs $17.50 for a person with a car and $4.95 if a person is traveling alone (Lake Champlain Transportation Company).
During the early and mid-19th century, Lake Champlain became increasingly important, linking major urban centers to the north and south by using the lake as a thoroughfare. Steam powered boats provided faster and cheaper transport on the lake. In the 1790s, Samuel Morey, a Vermont inventor created a prototype steam engine for boats. There were also many other people, including Robert Fulton, working on this technology at the time. After interuption by the Civil War steamboating thrived again, but by the 1870s railroads had become more efficient modes of transport and gradually caused the retirement of almost all the steamboats on Lake Champlain.
Steamboat travel was not without its share of accidents. On September 5, 1918, in the middle of the night, a fire broke out in the pantry of the Phoenix. All but six people aboard escaped. The burning ship sank off the Colchester Reef. The Phoenix was not the only boat to run into problems. In July of 1875 passengers on the steamer Champlain were suddenly awakened. Pilot Eldredge was at the ship’s wheel when the steamer traveling fast, ran right into high rocky land near Westport, New York. When second pilot Rockwell rushed on deck to see what had happened. Eldredge calmly asked him, “Can you account for my being on the mountain?” Rockwell answered, “Yes, Mr. Eldredge, you were asleep.” Some say that Eldredge had been taking morphine to relieve the pain caused by gout, and that this contributed to the accident.
Despite occasional mishaps resulting from unattended candles left burning in the ships’ pantries or sleeping pilots, people continued to use the steamboats on Lake Champlain in great numbers until they were replaced by railroads and automobiles.
Steam is water that has been vaporized. Water is heated until the liquid becomes an invisible, odorless gas. It looks whitish and cloudy because there are tiny droplets of liquid water mixed in with the vaporized water, or steam. When water becomes steam it increases in volume 1,600 times. The pressure generated by this enormous increase in volume can be harnessed to operate mechanical devices.
The heart of the steamboat is the steam engine. Many different designs and variations of steam engines were developed and tried during the era of steam ships, but the basic steam engine invented by James Watt was the most important design.
First, water is fed to a coal or wood-fired boiler, which heats it up until it produces steam. The steam is then fed into a piston cylinder; the pressure generated pushes the piston up to the top of its stroke. At the top, a valve is opened in the side of the cylinder venting out the steam. The valve drops down, and the whole cycle starts again.
Steamboats on Lake Champlain could be driven by screws like most modern ships, and some were. The typical image of a steamship, however, is of the paddle-wheeler. These ships came in two varieties: the stern-wheeler – with a single wheel at the stern of the boat, and the side-wheeler, with a wheel at either side. These wheels were large and fitted with paddle blades along the outside. Motive power to the boat was produced by pushing these blades through the water. Side-wheelers could also use their paddles to turn by powering one wheel and stopping or reversing the other.
In 1906, the side-wheeler Ticonderoga was completed in the shipyards at Shelburne Harbor on Lake Champlain by the Champlain Transportation Company, the oldest steam company in the world. The “Ti”, as it was called, was the last steamship built for Lake Champlain travel. At 200-feet long the Ticonderoga was grand. It had a large dining room, carpeted halls filled with plush chairs, a barber shop, purser’s office, and a promenade deck. The Ti held 1,200 people and cruised at 17 miles per hour. For 47 years, this steel hulled side-wheeler cruised the length and breadth of Lake Champlain carrying passengers, freight and even the automobiles. First in service on the lake as a commercial ferry, she was later used as a tourist vessel until 1955, when the Shelburne Museum began the huge job of moving the steamer to its new home. The Ti was the last of the steamboats on Lake Champlain.
By 1950, the aging steamboat was no longer a paying proposition and seemed destined to be broken up for its value as scrap metal. If it had not been for the vigorous action of a citizens’ committee, led by Ralph Nading Hill of Burlington, the Ti would, today, be just a memory. Under the auspices of the Burlington Junior Chamber of Commerce and later, the Shelburne Museum, the Ti remained afloat four more years as a tourist vessel. But the problems of maintaining the old boat through autumn hurricanes and winter snow and ice, of cleaning, repairing and licensing the ancient boilers, and of finding trained crewmen, proved a losing battle. The decision to move the Ti to the Shelburne Museum’s grounds seemed the best way to avert disaster and to preserve the boat for future generations.
It took 65 days to move the Ti the two miles from Shelburne Bay to the museum. A large work crew hauled the boat from the bay onto a carriage fitted with railway wheels. Then the Ti traveled overland on railroad tracks. You can visit the newly restored Ticonderoga today to get an idea of what lake travel was like in the early 1900s. Call the Shelburne Museum for information regarding hours and admission fees: (802) 985-3346.