EARL BESSETT OF Addison stands on the deck of the historic Ticonderoga passenger steamship on the grounds of the Shelburne Museum. Bessett, 83, served as first mate on the ship, which cruised Lake Champlain for almost 50 years, in the early 1940s.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
By JOHN FLOWERS
SHELBURNE — Earl Bessett one day last week joined the dozens of people who eagerly scoped out the legendary steamboat Ticonderoga, which sits on the lawn at the Shelburne Museum.
But while most of the visitors marveled at the architectural splendor of the vessel and could only imagine what it must have been like to take her on a cruise in Lake Champlain, the Ticonderoga held no mysteries for Bessett.
That’s because the Addison resident, now 83, became intimately familiar with the boat as its first mate during two eventful summers back in the early 1940s. On Thursday, Bessett returned to the vessel to renew acquaintances and share some of his memories as a crew member in 1941 and 1942.
The Ticonderoga is the world’s only preserved side-paddlewheel passenger steamboat endowed with a walking beam engine. She was built in Shelburne in 1906 and operated as a day boat on Lake Champlain, serving ports along the New York and Vermont shores until 1953. She was the last commercially operating steamer on the lake.
In a what was a truly remarkable feat of engineering, the Ticonderoga in 1955 was moved two miles overland to the Shelburne Museum grounds, where it was painstakingly restored at its unlikely dry dock.
Bessett, who moved to Addison 12 years ago, still remembers the big move via specially-laid railroad tracks from Shelburne Bay to the museum grounds.
“I never thought they could do it,” he said. “I though it would tip over. It’s nice to see it preserved.”
Bessett was a student at Burlington High School in 1941 when he started poking around for a summer job. He, his brother and two of their friends found out that the Ticonderoga was looking for staff.
The teens relished the prospect of spending summer days working on a ship like the Ticonderoga, and at the then-princely salary of $20 per month, including room and board.
“That was pretty good in those days,” Bessett said with a smile, as he sat in a chair on one of the Ticonderoga’s four decks.
He and his buddies would soon get very familiar with those four decks, which they would spend many a mile scrubbing from stem to stern of the 220-foot-long ship. The Ticonderoga in those days offered cruises on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sunday, and Captain Fisher wanted the vessel ship-shape after every voyage.
Bessett’s hard work caught the eye of his superiors, as he was promoted to first mate after only a few weeks on the job. The new rank earned him an additional $10 per month and his own room. Most of the other crew members bunked in larger quarters in the lower level of the ship.
Along with a lot of scrubbing, Bessett and the rest of the crew would clear away trash left by passengers, straighten out deck chairs, polish brass fixtures and lug in supplies — including a lot of beer. Bessett recalled the adult liquid refreshment was consumed very quickly by the many soldiers who were stationed at nearby Fort Ethan Allen during the months preceding America’s entry into World War II. The soldiers and their dates lined up for the Saturday and Sunday evening cruises that drew up to 1,100 passengers. They would dance to the strains of live band music as the Ticonderoga gently cut its way through the lake at about 10 miles per hour.
“Fort Ethan Allen was in full bloom and maybe 60 percent or more of the people who came aboard were soldiers,” Bessett said. “The partying… It was a fun-boat. It was practically taken over by GIs. ”
The revelry would begin as soon as the Ticonderoga made its way past the Burlington breakwater. That’s when the ship was in federal waters and no longer subject to any state or local drinking and gambling ordinances.
Indeed, the Ticonderoga was endowed with as many as three bars on weekend evening cruises. Passengers could hold a beer mug in one hand and pump the lever of a one-armed bandit with the other.
“As crew members, we had to supply the beer and alcohol to the bartenders, and they were out straight,” Bessett said.
He saw a lot of passengers during his time on the boat, which, he would later learn, included his future wife, Carolyn. Turns out she and her family were passengers for occasional Sunday afternoon cruises during the early 1940s.
“I may have been (on the ship at the same time as Earl), but I wouldn’t have known it,” Carolyn Bessett said.
While the crew was busy immediately before, during and after cruises, Bessett recalled some decent down-time during which he and his buddies fished and swam off the Ticonderoga.
“We’d catch bass this big,” he recalled, holding out his hands a foot apart. “We would jump off the boat and swim to the breakwater. It was a fun summer job. We had a lot of free time.”
Bessett recalled being well-fed during his summers on the Ticonderoga, a ship he said rarely met with foul weather during his time aboard.
“I don’t think we lost anyone when we were under way,” Bessett said with a smile, though he believes one or more GIs were shoved overboard by their prankster comrades when the Ticonderoga was close to its dock.
Bessett returned to the Ticonderoga for summer duty in 1942. Then he served on a boat the following year, but in a far different context thousands of miles away. After being drafted in 1943, he served in the Navy aboard the U.S.S. Hunt, a destroyer that patrolled the Pacific during World War II. He had many adventures aboard the U.S.S. Hunt, which sustained damage from a Kamikaze attack.
Although the Ticonderoga was ostensibly a pleasure craft, Bessett believes it was his experience aboard the boat that led to him being assigned Navy duty.
Bessett still marvels at being able to revisit the summer workplace that holds such fond memories for him more than 60 years later.
“It’s amazing, to look at it the way it is,” Bessett said. “To look at it now, it’s in better shape now than it was then. It looks like you could fire it up and take it on an excursion.”