Burlington, Vermont
Early 20th-century Postcard Views

HP 206 Researching Historic Structures & Sites • 2012
Historic Preservation ProgramUniversity of Vermont

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A postcard of the Vermont III and the Ticonderoga at the Champlain Transportation Company steamboat wharf in the early twentieth century. The photographer was facing north along the Burlington waterfront. (Courtesy of Special Collections, Bailey/Howe Library, University of Vermont)

Picking up Steam on Lake Champlain: the Vermont III, the Ticonderoga, and the Champlain Transportation Company

The colored postcard entitled “Burlington, Vt., Steamer Vermont at the Dock” is a photographic view of the Champlain Transportation Company dock at the foot of King Street, taken from what is now Perkins Pier, looking north, in the early twentieth century. The vertical (“walking”) beam, sidewheel steamboats tied to the dock are the Vermont III and the Ticonderoga. (1)

The Vermont III is at the end of this wooden wharf, on the left, pointed south. She is listing to port, as passengers board or disembark. A crowd of people mill around onboard and some are on the dock. On the right, the Ticonderoga's bow faces west, out to Lake Champlain. A handful of people stand on the forward deck.

The largest of the Lake Champlain steamers, the Vermont III is easy to identify because of her nameplate, and also because she had only one funnel, as opposed to the Vermont II, which had two. The name of the Ticonderoga is not visible in this photo, but the bow is recognizable when compared with other pictures of the various steamships.

This postcard photo cannot predate 1906, since the 220-foot Ticonderoga was launched that year, in Shelburne Harbor. (2) At the time, only three large steamboats were active on the lake: the 205-foot Chateaugay, launched at Shelburne in 1888, (3) the 262-foot Vermont III, launched at Shelburne in 1903, (4) and the Ticonderoga, the last one built. (5) All three were iron-hulled, vertical beam sidewheelers with coal-fired boilers. The vertical beam, sidewheel engine was one among several types of nineteenth century marine steam engines.

The back of this card is divided, inscribed, “Hugh C. Leighton Co., Manufacturers, Portland, Me. U.S.A. 27473” (the card's number), and was postmarked June 20, 1911. (6) According to the website of the Metropolitan Postcard Club of New York City, the Leighton Company published postcards from 1906 to 1909. Most of the cards were printed in Frankfurt, Germany, rather than in the United States. (7)

Change came to Lake Champlain dramatically and rapidly in the nineteenth century. Steam navigation appeared very soon after its first use in the United States. Robert Fulton began running his steamer Clermont between New York City and Albany, New York in 1808. The following year, John and James Winans of Burlington built the 120-foot passenger steamer Vermont. (8)

She met the overland stage line between Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Montreal, Quebec, Canada, and the stage between Whitehall and Troy, New York, creating a 150-mile, international, waterborne connection between Whitehall and Saint-Jean. (9) This was before the War of 1812, only 25 years after the American colonies had gained their independence from Britain, and only 49 years after British troops had forced French settlers to flee to Canada from their homes on the lake, in what would become Addison, Vermont and Ticonderoga and Crown Point, New York.

From the 1810s to the 1830s, many steamers served Lake Champlain. (10) The Champlain Transportation Company, formed in 1826, eventually overtook its competitors and owned all seven of the large steamboats operating on the lake. (11)

Steam travel thrived in the mid-nineteenth century, providing everyday transportation for people and goods. It joined the Champlain Valley with the Hudson River to the southwest, via the new Champlain Canal in New York, and with points north, northwest, and northeast, via the Chambly Canal in Quebec. When the canals went out of business, steamers became an inland water link between railway lines, and provided overnight accommodations including staterooms and dining rooms. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, smaller, no-frills steamboats also carried people and freight up and down rivers such as the Otter Creek in Addison County, Vermont, and across the lake between Vermont and New York.

The supremacy of the sidewheel steamers began to wane, though, as railroads cut into their business. Also, the Champlain Transportation Company did not react quickly to the demand for ferries that could carry large numbers of cars across the lake. Ogden Ross observed, in his post-World War I history, The Steamboats of Lake Champlain: 1809-1930, that since about 1875 the company had been a “tourist line.” (12)

On a page of articles about travel and recreation, shortly before the July 4 holiday in 1900, the New-York Daily Tribune promoted the steamboat company's tours. The Tribune suggested that on the way to the Adirondack Mountains, New Yorkers would enjoy a side trip on Lake George and Lake Champlain, on this company's boats. “The monotony of continuous train riding is in this way broken, and beautiful scenery on every side, to say nothing of the comfort of a stroll on the commodious decks, is the reward. While on Champlain mountain ranges form the horizon on every hand. Off to the east the Green Mountains rise in all their glory, while to the west the well known Adirondacks reign supreme.” (13)

The Tribune called the Champlain Transportation Company's boats, “as neat as a new pin,” and commented that “excellent meals, with the best of service, may be obtained onboard. Once taken the trip will always remain fresh in the memory.” (14)

The Burlington Weekly Free Press published an ad for the company in June 1902, saying, “Just see the low rate excursions, arranged by the Central Vermont Railway with Steamer 'Chateaugay' via Burlington.” The ad said the trip was a five-hour sail through the Champlain Islands. The Chateaugay could hold up to 1,200 passengers. Tourists arrived in Burlington by train for the daylong voyage. (15)

On a whistle-stop tour of northern New England, President Theodore Roosevelt visited Burlington in September that year. After addressing a large, enthusiastic crowd at City Hall Park, he cruised from the Lake Champlain Yacht Club to the steamboat landing at Thompson's Point, Charlotte, Vermont on the yacht Elfrida. The Champlain Transportation Company dock was the embarkation point for the Sherman Military Band and 500 of the president's fans, who followed him to Charlotte aboard the Chateaugay, according to the Burlington Daily Free Press. (16)

Seven years earlier, another Roosevelt had been appointed president of Champlain Transportation Company. James Roosevelt, father of Franklin Delano, managed the company from 1895 to 1901. (17) The second President Roosevelt wrote, in the early 1940s, that he had fond memories of “many trips made in the old days on such sterling craft as the Ticonderoga, the Maquam, the Chateaugay and the second Vermont.” (18)

The Vermont III was christened by eight-year-old Mary Loomis, as the ship began to slide down the ways at Shelburne Harbor, a few days after Theodore Roosevelt's visit. About 600 people watched. “As the new craft touched the water, those on board joined with those on shore in cheering, the boat's flag was unfurled and whistles of all the boats in the harbor blown,” reported the Burlington Weekly Free Press. (19)

Then a strong south wind pushed the newly-launched ship aground on a beach. The Vermont III was the largest steamboat on Lake Champlain, but had to be towed off the shallows by the Maquam, a much smaller steamer. (20)

Vermont III made her maiden voyage to Plattsburgh in late May 1903. The Weekly Free Press called her a “fast and beautiful boat.” She was similar to the Chateaugay, but even better, with a hurricane deck, larger staterooms, and an updated engine. “The boat is a model of elegance, and its exterior and interior furnishings are the best that can be procured,” the paper said. “Its speed will make traveling from Ticonderoga to Plattsburgh a pleasure.” (21)

When the Ticonderoga was launched at Shelburne Shipyard in April 1906, a crowd of 1,500 people watched the ceremony. The Chateaugay transported most of the spectators, making two trips between the King Street dock and the shipyard. (22) Some people rented canoes at boathouses for the excursion to Shelburne. On the way back to Burlington, the Chateaugay's wake capsized a canoe, dumping two college students from the class of 1908 into the lake off the resort at Crescent Beach. Three high school students, in another canoe, rescued them. (23)

In the spring of 1909 Vermont and New York were planning a celebration of Samuel de Champlain's voyage to Lake Champlain 300 years earlier. The tercentenary committee must have expected a lot of traffic. It asked the Champlain Transportation Company to schedule the Vermont III for extra trips between Plattsburgh and Burlington on July 7 and 8. (24)

Sometimes, as the saying goes, mistakes were made. The Ticonderoga ran aground on Point au Fer reef off Champlain, New York in August 1919, because the pilot misjudged both the ship's speed and the lake's depth at that point. After an investigation, the “United States steamboat and boiler inspectors” found that the pilot, Grant Edson, had not violated any laws of navigation or steamboat regulations. (25)

In the postcard photo of the company's steamboat wharf, frame buildings are visible behind the Ticonderoga. A one-story building with an east-west roofline has a gable end facing west toward the lake. About 12 feet from the west end of the building is another gable, facing south, close to the south edge of the wharf. (26)

The photo indicates a footprint that does not seem to exactly match the Champlain Transportation Company building footprints on any of the insurance maps of Burlington by the Sanborn Map Company from 1885 to 1942. The map from the earliest year this could have been taken, 1906, shows a rectangular “freight house” filling up most of the space at the end of the dock. A small office and waiting room were attached to its northeast corner. (27)

In August 1907 the transportation company was building an arcade along the south side of its King Street dock. The Weekly Free Press reported that the arcade would be 88 feet long by 14 feet wide, held up by 12-foot posts with a 3-foot roof overhang. “This protection is intended for passengers landing in wet weather, and a portion of it will be used for freight, to relieve the congested condition of the regular shed,” the Free Press said. (28) The 1912, 1919, and 1926 maps show a long storage shed parallel to the south side of the wharf. (29) (30) (31)

Belatedly, the Champlain Transportation Company tried to cater to the growing number of travelers who preferred cars to trains, and who were more interested in speed, convenience, and price than in the luxury the big steamboats had to offer. Along with the Lake George Steamboat Company, the transportation company placed an ad in the 1925 Burlington city directory, offering passenger and automobile ferry service on both lakes. “Trip made by daylight. Good highway between the lakes. Motorists are guaranteed connections,” the ad said. “We take you off the State Highway and put you on the State Highway between Vermont and New York State points, via the nearest, quickest and safest route. 'Our Service at Your Service.' Popular low rate excursions daily during Summer season.” (32)

The following year the Chateaugay was converted to a car ferry, sailing between Burlington and Port Kent, New York. (33) The company's finances were in the red consistently, though. Not only was it losing business to smaller, less expensive car ferries, but its operating costs – for coal, labor, and food - were increasing. (34)

The Vermont III and the Ticonderoga continued to operate as before, but the Vermont III was sailing only 10 weeks of the year at that point, between Plattsburgh, New York and Montcalm Landing in Ticonderoga, New York, connecting with the Delaware and Hudson Railroad. (35) Fewer and fewer travelers wanted to take the train, and the Great Depression of the 1930s further reduced the company's revenues.

The Champlain Transportation Company board voted to end its steamboat service in 1933. (36) Horace Corbin bought the assets of the company in 1937, after establishing his own streamlined, diesel-engine ferry operation out of Burlington. (37) In a few years, however, Corbin's company was going bankrupt.

The Vermont III, Chateaugay, and Ticonderoga survived, at least for awhile, in various forms. After a stint as the yacht club's floating clubhouse in Burlington, the Chateaugay was disassembled in 1940 and her hull shipped in pieces to New Hampshire, where it became the base of the new Mount Washington II, a diesel-powered excursion boat on Lake Winnipesaukee. (38) The Vermont III 's hull was stripped and turned into a diesel freighter, which operated on the East Coast in the 1950s. (39)

The Ticonderoga was still available for excursions on Lake Champlain. The University of Vermont chartered her for a cruise on September 20, 1953. It was the steamboat's last cruise of the season, and turned out to be her last ever. Saved from being scrapped, she was moved overland on rails from the shore of the lake to the Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont, to be installed as a permanent exhibit in 1955. (40) The steamboat was restored to her 1923 appearance, and became a National Historic Landmark. (41)

In 1948, the Lake Champlain Transportation Company purchased what remained of the Champlain Transportation Company, and currently offers three vehicle ferry crossing routes between six ports in Vermont and New York. The company, which includes the Burlington Shipyard, still uses the Champlain Transportation Company's dock. It also uses the one directly north, which was part of the Shepard and Morse Lumber Company.

These docks have been greatly expanded, and hardly resemble the ones in this location a century ago. A photo taken in October 2012 shows the 115-foot tour boat Northern Lights docked at the transportation company's wharf. The craft was designed to be reminiscent of late nineteenth and early twentieth century steamboats, and is owned by Lake Champlain Cruises, headquartered next to the wharf, where Shepard and Morse Lumber Company mills were when the postcard photo was taken. In an aerial view on Google Earth, the original outline of the Shepard and Morse Lumber Company dock is faintly visible within the much larger footprint of the current ferry dock. (42)

Barbara R. Bosworth

Looking north from Perkins Pier toward the former steamboat wharf on October 13, 2012. The wharf is now the King Street dock, where ferries leave to and arrive from Port Kent, New York. The boat on the left is Northern Lights, an excursion boat designed to resemble the nineteenth and twentieth century steamboats that used to be berthed here. (Photo by Barbara R. Bosworth)


1 Postcard, Burlington Harbor, Burlington Postcard Files, Special Collections, University of Vermont Bailey/Howe Library.

2 Ogden John Ross, Arthur B. Cohn, and J. Kevin Graffagnino, The Steamboats of Lake Champlain,1809 to 1930 (s.l.: Vermont Heritage Press, 1930, 1997), 145.

3 Ross et al., 137.

4 Ibid., 143.

5 Ibid., 161.

6 Postcard, Burlington Harbor, Burlington Postcard Files, Special Collections, University of Vermont Bailey/Howe Library.

7 Metropolitan Postcard Club of New York City, Publishers, http://www.metropostcard.com/publishersl.html (accessed October 2012).

8 Ross et al., 23.

9 Ibid., 25.

10 Ibid., 29.

11 Ibid., 50.

12 Ibid., 13.

13 “Champlain Transportation Company,” New-York Daily Tribune, July 8, 1900, 2.

14 Ibid.

15 Advertisement for Champlain Transportation Company, Burlington Weekly Free Press, June 12, 1902, 3.

16 “President Here, Trip from Windsor to Burlington One Continuous Ovation,” Burlington Daily Free Press, September 1, 1902, 2.

17 Ross et al., 140, 176.

18 Ralph Nading Hill, The Story of the Ticonderoga: A Chronicle of Steamboating (Shelburne, Vermont: Shelburne Museum, 1957), 30.

19 “Vermont Launched, New Steamer of Champlain Transportation Co. in the Water,” Burlington Weekly Free Press, September 4, 1902, 5.

20 Ibid.

21 “New Vermont, Engineer's Trial Trip of New Steamer of Champlain Transportation Company, Fast and Beautiful Boat,” Burlington Weekly Free Press, May 28, 1903, 11.

22 “Into Lake Champlain, New Steamer Ticonderoga Gracefully Floated Yesterday Afternoon,” Burlington Weekly Free Press, April 19, 1906, 5.

23 “After the Launching, College Men Doused in Lake – High School Boys Get Them Out,” Burlington Weekly Free Press, April 19, 1906, 5.

24 “$75,000 more appropriated,” Burlington Weekly Free Press, May 6, 1909, 14.

25 “Due to Miscalculation, Government Inspectors Report On Stranding of Steamer Ticonderoga,” Burlington Weekly Free Press, October 16, 1919, 12.

26 Postcard, Burlington Harbor, Burlington Postcard Files, Special Collections, University of Vermont Bailey/Howe Library.

27 Sanborn Map Company, “Burlington, Chittenden County, Vermont” (New York: Sanborn Map Company, 1906), map 25.

28 “City News,” Burlington Weekly Free Press, August 8, 1907, 5.

29 Sanborn Map Company, “Burlington, Chittenden County, Vermont” (New York: Sanborn Map Company, 1912), map 28.

30 Sanborn Map Company, “Burlington, Chittenden County, Vermont” (New York: Sanborn Map Company, 1919), map 23.

31 Sanborn Map Company, “Burlington, Chittenden County, Vermont” (New York: Sanborn Map Company, 1926), map 21.

32 Champlain Transportation Company advertisement, H. A. Manning and Company, Burlington, Vermont City Directory (Springfield, Massachusetts: H. A. Manning and Company, 1925), 561.

33 Ross, et al., 186.

34 Ross, et al., 185.

35 Ross, et al., 187.

36 Ross, et al., 188.

37 Ross, et al., 190.

38 Hill, 192.

39 Hill, 194.

40 Hill, 195.

41 "Steamboat Ticonderoga," Collections, Shelburne Museum, http://shelburnemuseum.org/collections/steamboat-ticonderoga/ (accessed October 2012).

42 “7 Maple Street, Burlington, Vermont,” 44 degrees 28' 25.05” N, 73 degrees 13' 09.36” W, elevation: 104 feet, Google Earth, Imagery date: May 15, 2012 (accessed September 2012).