Letting off summertime steam on Lake Champlain

Eighteen steamboats gathered at River’s Edge Cottages & Campground on Otter Creek for a regional meet. Photo by Lynn Monty
Eighteen steamboats gathered at River’s Edge Cottages & Campground on Otter Creek for a regional meet. Photo by Lynn Monty

Boats powered by steam drove commerce for about a century on Lake Champlain. Ferries and barges were also used, but steamships were the quickest mode of water transportation. Today, steamboats on the lake are a bit slower, a lot smaller, and a rarity.

Enter Russ Steeves, Redbud, and the North American Steamboat Association. Redbud is a pleasure launch that Steeves totes to meets with his truck and trailer. Last stop was two weeks ago at River’s Edge Cottages & Campground in Vergennes for a regional meet-up of about 18 steamboats. The biggest meet in Vermont yet, Steeves said.

Retired aerospace engineer Steeves, 78, drove from Chelmsford, MA. Most of the members at the meet were from around New England. The campground hosts the meet on Otter Creek, one of the largest rivers in the state, every year. “We go up and down Otter Creek to the falls in the morning, and to the lake in the afternoon,” Steeves said. “We go across the lake to the other side and to the bays. We never get tired of it.”

In the early 1800s C.P. Van Ness moved his Lake Champlain steamboat company from Vergennes to the southeast side of Shelburne Bay. The Champlain Transportation Company bought his company soon after.

Steeves’ Redbud is a little more romantic than the steamships Van Ness owned. Redbud is English in style and is a recreation of an affluently-owned pleasure boat of the 1890s. Speeds of between five to 8 miles per hour is all that is required of this boat.

“Everybody associates us with the African Queen,” Steeves said referring to the 1951 film starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. “You get in these boats and you hear the engine going cachunk, cachunk, cachunk. The history is kind of romantic, and the technology is attractive.” Steeves said.

Redbud is 19 feet long, which is a little below average for the boats other North American Steamboat Association members own. Many are 23 feet, and they are all wood-fired, and steam-powered.

“Otter Creek is perfect,” Steeves said. “Steamboats like sheltered areas like this. They are not rough sea-going boats.”

Their last meet was a Champlain Canal trip in Waterford, NY. Their next, Lake Winnipesaukee, is the largest gathering of steamboats in the world. There will be about 60 steamboats there Labor Day weekend.

Aside from the camaraderie between association members, Clem LeGates of Delaware said Otter Creek and Lake Champlain are the main reasons he comes to the Vermont meet every year. “This one is real popular,” he said. “It’s the fresh water. A lot of meets are salt water, and there is a current, and tides, and it can be a problem.”

LeGates is a retired appliance salesman. He said operating a steamboat seems kind of complicated, but it’s really not. “There is a boiler, steam and pistons, no gears or transmission, you have to oil it all from the outside, and keep track of your steam pressure,” he said. “I like mechanical things. A steamboat like this is all mechanical, there are no electronics, no batteries.”

Contact Lynn Monty at 985-3091 or Lynn@WindRidgePublishing.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/VermontSongbird.