Vermont’s patron saint of the impossible

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I was thinking, as I stood on the rear deck of the steamship Ticonderoga earlier this fall, that we should proclaim the late Ralph Nading Hill Vermont’s patron saint of the impossible.

My first time on that deck, I was a small boy, and the ship was quietly dying, spending what everyone thought were its last days chugging around the lake.

Ralph Hill, a historian primarily remembered for his many books on Vermont, was a man vigorously devoted to the history and lore of Lake Champlain. It was Hill who discovered the Ethan Allen Homestead and got it salvaged and preserved. His special love was the steamships that made the lake a thoroughfare of commerce in the 19th century.

But the sad fact was that by the middle of the 20th century,
steamships were a thing of the past on Lake Champlain. The Ticonderoga was the last of those great sidewheel passenger boats, and one of the most elegant: 220-feet long, the graceful, white ghost of a bygone era. Though the ship was destined for the scrapheap, Ralph Hill loved the Ti, and persuaded the Shelburne Museum to purchase the boat in 1951. But she was still floating in Lake Champlain two miles away from the museum. How could they get her there?

It wasn’t Ralph Hill who came up with the answer, but he knew it could be done, and he supplied the leadership and the enthusiasm needed to make the impossible project possible. And sure enough, a plan was devised. It would be one of the strangest maritime odysseys ever undertaken.

First, the Ticonderoga was sailed up the mouth of the LaPlatte River, where a huge earthen lock was built. Some 20,000 cubic yards of clay and rock was blasted out of the riverbank, and an immense clay wall, 24 feet high was built.

On a cold December 30, the lock was flooded and the Ticonderoga maneuvered into it. Water was then pumped into the enclosure. The Ti slowly rose upward and was winched onto the waiting railroad carriages. In the meantime, the equivalent of a four-lane highway was being cleared across the fields and through the woods to the museum.

Finally, on December 30, 1954 the great ship began to move. After it rolled slowly across one length of tracks, they were picked up and laid down in front of her and the process repeated. Her overland journey eventually took 65 days, 20 hours, and 28 minutes.

And now the Ticonderoga rests – permanently moored and restored, a leading attraction of the Shelburne Museum – not far from the ancient Colchester lighthouse that she once regularly passed on her travels up and down the lake.

Though Ralph Nading Hill is gone, his legacy lives on in the Ti, the Ethan Allen Homestead, and other ways. Because of him, I can still visit the Ticonderoga, remembering what it was like to walk on her decks as a boy. And generations of other youngsters will now have a direct, tactile understanding of what the Age of Steam on Lake Champlain really meant.

That’s why I think we should declare Ralph Hill Vermont’s patron saint of the impossible. He knew how to take a hopeless case, and turn it into something wonderful for everyone.

Tom Slayton lives in Montpelier and is the editor of Vermont Life Magazine.

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