Treasurers You Can Still Ride On

Vermont Public Radio Commentary
by Chester H. Liebs

© 1999 by Chester H. Liebs, Aired 8/25/99
Made possible by: The Alma Gibbs Donchian Foundation and the Preservation Trust of Vermont

You don’t need to dive to the bottom to see all of Lake Champlain's historic treasures. You can still ride on some of them. I was reminded of this recently when I spotted my friend, Captain Jerry Williams, while passing by Burlington’s King-Street Ferry Dock. He and his crew just finished directing a parade of cars, trucks, bicyclists, pedestrians and a huge rec vehicle towing a motorboat, onto the deck of the ferryboat Adirondack. All was now ready for the one-hour trip across the broad lake to Port Kent, NY -- a trip ferries have been making for almost 200 years. “Come along for the ride,” he said. I happily accepted.

As we rounded the breakwater and the Burlington skyline receded, my thoughts turned to the three venerable ferries assigned to this run. The 51-year-old Valcour is the baby of the fleet. With a broad flat deck, and wheel house jutting up one side like a conning tower, the vessel looks a lot like an aircraft carrier.

In contrast the Adirondack and Champlain are traditionally ferryboat-like. They are both “two-deckers,” with a vehicle deck and passenger deck above it, and “double- enders”, with a wheelhouse and propeller at each so that cars can enter one side and exit the other without the boat having to turn around. Both also sport a row of large oval openings in their vehicle-deck side walls. Part of a 1950s remodeling, this motif was once in vogue for making everything from ships to storefronts look sleek and streamlined.

While sharing some features-in-common, the two boats have very different histories. Built in Baltimore in 1930, the Champlain saw service in Virginia as the City of Hampton, before arriving here in the late 1950s. You can tell she is coming with your eyes closed by the distinctive throbbing of her original diesel engines -- a bm bm bm bm bm bm bm bm-- sort of like the sound of an old steam boat.

A little smaller than the Champlain, the Adirondack, built in 1913, is the oldest double-ended ferry in service not only on Lake Champlain but in all of North America.

She once plied Florida’s St. Johns River, then the Delaware, New York City’s East River, and Chesapeake Bay, under several different names-- the “South Jacksonville,” “Mount Holly.” and the “The Emerson C. Harrington 2nd,” before being rechristened the Adirondack, in 1954, upon entering Burlington- Port Kent service.

About mid lake my thoughts turned from history to food as I bought a hot dog and soft drink in the homey, 1940s roadside restaurant-like passenger cabin. The cost was very reasonable --not the gouger prices charged in airports or trains. Also in an age of instant tourist events, festooned with corporate advertising, and with loudspeakers blaring everywhere -- the ferries are a welcome refuge from commercialism. Except for an occasional short welcome from the captain, passengers have the luxury of quiet to absorb the spirit of the Lake.

I went back outside and peered into the wheelhouse where you can see the ship’s big steering wheel, and speaking tubes for talking to the engine room. The Adirondack has also been upgraded with powering steering to turn the ship with ease, a two-way radio, and radar that can detect the smallest kayak lurking in the waves ahead.

As the setting sun turned the Adirondack mountains from green to purple, the Port Kent dock came into view. The ship’s horn blasted and Captain Williams eased the boat into its slip. Our journey from New England to the Empire State had ended.

Unlike the other two, shorter, year-round Lake Champlain Transportation Company ferry runs, outfitted with newer boats, the Burlington--Port Kent ferry is seasonal and is taken more for the experience than for speed ... and it seems to me, as I take my daily waterfront bike ride, that there are often fewer cars queued up for the ferries than there used to be. Now is the time to take the pledge, and the pleasure, to ride the ferries at least once each summer, and for the State’s of Vermont and New York to redouble efforts to promote the ferries as one of the lake’s great historic treasurers-- treasurers you can still can ride on.

Author, and observer of the everyday landscape, Chester Liebs is Professor Emeritus of History and Founder of the Historic Preservation Program at the University of Vermont.