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The day the Thompson-Joy house came to town – PART 2

by Steve McKee on December 31, 2006

The big house-moving day at last arrived, two days before Christmas. The factors had finally all lined up: the PG&E wires across the empty field had been temporarily lowered, the big barge was available, the railroad tracks the house needed to cross would have no trains running on the weekend, the rain had mostly held off and, although the field was soft and difficult for the big house to cross, it at least wasn’t totally impossible.

The Thompson house, one-hundred-and-sixteen years old and weighing two hundred tons, started December 23rd in the Napa countryside that it had always known, and ended the day on a barge just offshore of downtown Benicia, loosely festooned with Christmas lights, awaiting a whole new chapter in its life story.

It must have been quite the day to be a house-mover, especially when the house is your own personal project and you make it your mission to save it from demolition planned by some golf course builder, as it was for house-movers Phil and Celeste Joy who plan on restoring the house into a bed and breakfast inn on the Benicia shore. On December 23rd I believe the Thompson house became the Thompson-Joy house.

Phil had waited months — years really — for this day. Preparations the day before kept him up till 3:30 in the morning and then he was up two hours later to put in a stressful but exhilarating twenty hours of work on moving day.

I got word from Phil two days before that the 23rd was definitely going to be the day. So on that morning Melody and I and our son Wesley headed out to the same Napa field we had visited oh-so-long-ago in October when Phil and Celeste had us over to visit the house during one quiet evening. This time things weren’t so still.

As we approached, the house once again loomed large, breath-taking really in that first glimpse, but this time it was down by the edge of the Napa river, with a big barge tied up to tractors on the shore and twenty or more onlookers milling about. The tall house was made taller by its placement on a network of heavy steel beams and the array of dolly trailers with a total of sixty-two wheels (so I’m told) that added another eight feet of height to the house during the move. A wide swath of the field leading up to the railroad tracks at the waters edge looked trampled and muddied, like an army had marched through. Phil had earlier told me he had almost completely buried some of the big wheels in the mud.

I’ve always liked the energy of jobsites. And house-moving jobsites seem to be especially imbued with good masculine energy: the heavy lifting, the array of full-size Tonka toys like tractors and cranes, the willingness to get dirty and do whatever it takes to get the job done. And this jobsite on this day seemed especially charged with a sense of purpose.

A sort of ramp/platform had been created from timbers stacked together to create a smooth path over the railroad tracks. A small crane had moved heavy duty steel ramps into place to make a bridge onto the barge. Workers could be seen doing things like wrestling cables into place, moving timbers, or placing aluminum plates on the barge ahead of the slowly advancing wheels as extra support for the barge deck. Off to the side, a big hose gushed an arc of water into the river from somewhere down in the bilge of the tired old barge. Sparks flew from a welding torch applied to a cable under the house. You know that it’s a manly job site when guys whip out torches and weld things with the same ease that you or I would use scotch tape.

Almost imperceptibly the house moved forward onto the barge, at a speed of a tenth of a mile per hour or something like that, pulled by cables from two big trucks with winches on the far end of the barge. The sight reminded me of the way NASA moves a shuttle up the ramp to the launch pad. Phil moved about, watching, joining in on chores, occasionally taking cell phone calls or pausing to chat with friends and the many family members who were on hand to watch and share in the excitement of it all. It was a good day to be a house mover.

With the house finally in place at the center of the barge, timbers were added behind the wheels as blocks, the steel ramp sections were lifted away by crane, and the last of the seven or so barge riders climbed up the side of the barge for the ride to Benicia, predicted at that time to be about seven hours.

Then, just like that, the barge drifted out away from the shore and slowly pivoted to be pushed downstream by the tug. Phil stood in a little dinghy by the shore and watched as the house started down the river at a steady speed. He finished a cell phone call, looked at the fast fleeing house and then used an oar to pantomime a panicky rowing motion as onlookers onshore chuckled. He was actually headed to a second smaller tugboat still waiting offshore, a boat with a small crane named “Stormy” that he owns as part of his house moving business. He would catch up to the barge and spend the day helping to push his house to Benicia.

At this point Melody, Wesley and I left and did a little Christmas shopping on the way home. Going through the north part of Vallejo we looked across the flatlands and saw the pointed shape of the house a mile or two away along the river so we drove that way only to find that the silhouette became strangely more and more see-through the closer we got, you know, kind of more and more like a tree, so after a laugh we turned back.

The day for many of us house-groupies became sort of a cat and mouse thing: going through sort of a normal day, but then getting a phone call with some tidbit about where the house might currently be and some attempt at a projection of where it might be viewable sometime soon.

Predictions were hard to make. Even Phil who was in the middle of it all (and had made the barge ride going in the opposite direction the day before) was hard pressed to predict whether he would even make Benicia that day or might require a second day. Those damn tides made it hard to know.

I heard about details later from Phil. Going down the Napa River the ebb tide moved them out at a good clip. There was one heart-stopping moment when the fifty foot wide barge was calmly but urgently maneuvered away from a fast approaching pier and missed it by two feet or less. (All’s well that ends well, eh?)

Passing under the big tall bridge at highway 37 required stopping, backing up, and carefully considering the alignment of the barge to take into account the strong current running diagonally between the bridge columns. After that obstacle came the successful transit through the Mare Island draw-bridge and the trip along the Vallejo waterfront. Steve and Jill Ray, who had gone there to watch, tell me they saw many a jaw drop as unsuspecting people out for a walk looked up at the highly unusual sight of a big house floating through town.

As evening approached I got a call from Celeste saying the barge was approaching the Carquinez Bridge. So my family jumped in the car, took off heading west and decided on the fly to try for the Vallejo Maritime Academy near the bridge. We arrived as the sky was starting to darken but saw no sign of house or barge. A man was walking down the waterfront path and Melody had to ask. “Unusual question, but did you see a big Victorian house pass by here?”

“About ten minutes ago,” he said. I asked if it had Christmas lights. “Yes,” he said, “and it looked totally cool.”

Oh goody. I had lobbied Phil hard to be sure to get lights up because of the possibility of a nighttime arrival.

We had missed seeing it at the bridge, but we could still make the Glen Cove marina. Alone at the marina, we quietly took steps up to a second floor overlook at the big marina building and looked through the darkness towards the lights of Crockett. Is that red light from the barge? If so then that dark shape might just be it. Then we saw that the dark silhouette even had two chimneys. Yep, that was it all right. It was moving upstream very slowly. I was later told that both tugboats were at full power but the ebb tide was quite strong in the narrow channel.

The good news for the exhausted Phil Joy was that he would be able to make it to his downtown boatyard that night. The unfortunate thing for us town-folk was that the unusual sight of the house crossing the Straits would be happening in the dark. After briefly turning off the house’s Christmas lights while next to Crockett (some wacky notion about safety in the narrow channel or some such thing) they had the lights back on as they passed by Southampton Bay. There would be a memorable spectacle after all despite the nighttime arrival.

By seven o’clock there were twenty or more well wishers gathered at the end of West C Street near the boatyard entrance to wait for the house to arrive. A sort of rectangle of Christmas lights could be seen in the distance out by Port Costa, some of the strings of lights flashing, others not. It slowly grew bigger. Cool. Cell phone calls were made to friends with the news.

John Laverty loaned me his flashlight so I could flash the approaching barge and thereby feel with this childish act that I was actually contributing in some way. Headlights from a truck on the barge flashed back. Even cooler.

As the Christmas lights grew steadily closer eventually the house itself could be seen dimly. It was no surprise to any of us that the very low tide would prevent the barge from coming all the way in. The small crowd included Phil’s wife Celeste who finished a cell phone call and told us that Phil wanted to wait four hours for the tide to rise and then bring the barge all the way in to the boatyard. In the spirit of the holiday, two female voices could be heard singing “I saw a house come sailing in.” (Okay, I admit, it was my wife and daughter.)

The following morning I went to the boatyard in the grey light just before dawn to see if the barge had been brought in closer. Phil and his crew had indeed brought it inside the boatyard with the higher tide sometime in the night. Now the boatyard was still, the gate chained, but the house highly visible in its temporary spot –an instant and distinctive addition to the waterfront skyline. In the months to come it will eventually be moved by land from its current place at the end of West C Street to its permanent home at the end of West D Street. It’ll be a cakewalk of a move for Phil after all this.

Even at that early hour a few spectators were there to look at the town’s newest historical treasure. “Amazing,” said one before turning to go. The last one lingered, taking in the sight for a bit longer. “This sort of thing is so great,” he said. “This is Benicia.”

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