North American Steamboat Association convenes on local shores

Russ Steeves and Joyce Chambers on their steamboat Redbud in July 2017. Photo by Lynn Monty.

Pancake breakfasts with real maple syrup at the River’s Edge Campground on Otter Creek and daily tours to Lake Champlain have the North American Steamboat Associating coming back year after year. This marks two decades of the Vermont meet. They even had the T-shirts to prove it this year. About 17 steamboats hit the lake this July.

This actually marks my fourth year joining mechanical engineer Russ Steeves and his companion Joyce Chambers on their pleasure launch Redbud. We first met when I was on assignment for The Burlington Free Press. This year, we took a tour of Otter Creek to Vergennes Falls together, but the two journeyed out into Lake Champlain several times throughout their week-long stay. Joyce with her parasol and Russ with his straw hat … it tends to take a person back in time. And there’s a modern steampunk element to the whole thing that draws attention from a younger crowd.

Be sure to view the video of my adventure with them on our Facebook page where I give you an inside look at a functioning steam engine.

Thompson’s Point used to be home to steamboats like Redbud. Take a peek in this edition for old photos and a look back with our local historian Dan Cole. English-style Redbud is a re-creation of an affluently owned pleasure boat of the 1890s. The fastest it travels is about 8 mph. At 19-feet long, this steamboat is a little below average length. Most are about 23 feet. And of course it’s wood-fired and steam-powered.

Cornelius P. Van Ness ran the Lake Champlain Steamboat Company that built several steamers in Vergennes between 1815 and 1820, Cole said. Van Ness owned an interest in the American Hotel in Burlington that later became known as the Van Ness House and was one of the officers of the University of Vermont in 1823.

Back in the early 1900s, steam provided the most modern mode of water transportation. Today steamboats on the lake are a rare spectacle, but for retired couple Russ and Joyce they are an avid summertime hobby. “One thing about steamboats is they are quite forgiving,” Russ said. “They will slow down but they will keep going.”