During the United States’ early years, through the 18th and 19th century, Lake Champlain’s geographic orientation made it a vitally important strategic location for the early colonizers. The lake provided an important north-south passageway from the St. Lawrence valley in modern day Quebec to Lake George and the Hudson River valley in New York. Roads in the northeast at the time slow and unpredictable, they were largely unpaved, frequently muddy, and mountainous. This meant Lake Champlain was the swiftest mode of transportation in the northeast and, as such, control over it guaranteed control over the entire northeast kingdom. This made the lake an item of quite a lot of interest to the early settlers, and also made it home to a number of bloody encounters between conflicting parties during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, and the French and Indian War as well.Had these battles gone differently, America may never have gained independence from Britain, they played critical roles in our nation’s history. A number of these historic battle sites have been refurbished and become popular tourist destinations in the Lake Champlain area, and function as significant factors in a number of local economies.
However, beyond the historical and cultural significance of these sites as monuments in honor of the men and women who gave lost their lives in service of the ideals this country was founded upon, their modern day attraction as popular travel destinations is inherently tied into the additional natural benefits gained by their proximity to the lake and the Green Mountains. While these historical sites are important to the tourism industry here, the attraction of this area also lies in the natural beauty of the surroundings, which offer, in addition to these historical and educational attractions, various recreational activities such as hiking, camping, boating and fishing. All these activities are interconnected and support each other to promote the attraction of the area to visitors. As such, these historic battle sites serve to bolster tourism, and through this, local economies as well, by offering cultural and educational attractions, while the lake, as a pristine, natural area, offers the appeal of more leisurely, and recreational activities. It is essential to maintain the well being of Lake Champlain and the natural ecosystem here for these sites to continue as successful vacation destinations. In addition, without adequate revenue from tourism, interest in preserving these historic landmarks is at risk of suffering as well, and they could be lost to history forever.
Fort Ticonderoga is a large fort built by the French (who originally named it Fort Carillon) in 1755. It was strategically located at the southern tip of Lake Champlain, controlling travel between Lake Champlain and Lake George, making it a critical location in the French and Indian War [i]. Fort Ticonderoga was home to a number of bloody encounters between the French, who controlled the St. Lawrence River Valley to the north, and the British, who controlled the Hudson River Valley to the south. Both armies had a vested interest in controlling this strategically invaluable port, and, after a disastrous failed attempt in 1758, one year later, in the Battle of Ticonderoga, the British forces finally managed to overrun and drive out the remaining French forces [ii]. With the British in command of Fort Ticonderoga, they were set to relatively easily take control of the lakes, as well as the northern territory, bringing an end to the French and Indian War.
However, with the outbreak of the Revolutionary War about twenty years later, this strategic trade route, and the forts guarding it, once again became of importance. Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold led a small, rebel force, the Green Mountain Boys, on a surprise raid against the fort and the small, token British garrison left there in 1775. It was here that Allen famously awoke the British commander, yelling, “Surrender in the name of the great Jehovah and the Continental Congress!” The British commander peacefully surrendered in what is commonly known as ‘the first victory of the American Revolution.’ Control of Fort Ticonderoga once again changed hands and provided a useful staging ground for the American’s in their campaign to the north [ii]. This famous fort has now been completely restored as a popular tourist attraction. It hosts a world class collections and exhibits of 18th century artifacts and also offers tours, various family programs and large-scale re-enactments. There is hiking at the nearby, historic Mount Defiance, which played a vital role in a number of military battles at the fort due to the high ground advantage it offered, and the Ticonderoga Historic Society is housed here. Fort Ticonderoga’s position along Lake Champlain, as well as the Appalachian Mountains, makes it one of the most popular travel destinations around Lake Champlain during the summer and spring months [i].
Valcour Island, a beautiful and historic lake near the New York shore and just south of Plattsburgh, is one of the most famous locations in Lake Champlain for its pivotal role in the Revolutionary War, and, to a lesser degree, the French and Indian War. The island is most well-known for the Battle of Valcour, in October of 1776, in which Benedict Arnold led a small, untrained, and under-prepared naval force against the most powerful naval force in the world at the time [iii].
Arnold used the small, tight channel made by the island and the shore of New York to gain somewhat of a strategic advantage to lead his massively outnumbered and untrained band of rebel soldiers in a surprise attack on the British naval force in Lake Champlain. Arnold lured the British forces out around the island, and ambushed them from behind with the bulk of his forces, which had been hiding in the narrow straight between Valcour Island and the mainland. The British, who were taken by surprise and stuck with their ships facing the wrong direction, had the wind blowing against them and struggled to get their ships turned around. However, the American fleet was still helplessly outnumbered, and despite their courageous attempt, faced significant damage. That night, under cover of darkness, Arnold led a hasty retreat through the British to Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point [iv].
Although this battle was a tactical defeat for Arnold and the American forces, who had lost the almost their entire fleet, it was a strategic victory for the war as a whole. Arnold’s attack at Valcour Island managed to stall the advancement of British forces from Canada long enough that, with winter quickly approaching, they had to stop their southward assault until spring. During this time, the American forces were able to build and grow strong enough to decisively defeat the British forces in the region the next spring, completely halting their northern assaults. Were it not for this courageous, albeit foolhardy, attack by Arnold, chances are good the outcome of the war would have gone differently [iv].
Today, historic Valcour Island is maintained and preserved by New York as a state park, as it is considered a part of New York’s Adirondack Park. It is a popular vacation destination for a number of people in the area and valued for both its rich history and stunning beauty. It offers a number of fine bays and sandy beaches, making it a popular summer attraction for recreational boaters. In addition, the interior of the island is densely forested and offers several miles of pristine hiking trails, as well as several campgrounds. Guided tour boats also offer visitors informative tours of rich historical and scenic value of the island. In addition, considerable research is in progress today, examining the underwater remains of this historical battle, which is being spearheaded by the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum and a New York State Trooper. This project, the Valcour Bay Research Project, has brought forth a number of exciting discoveries about the historic and pivotal battle that was fought here, and is continuing to do so [iii].
Battery Park, located in downtown Burlington, VT, overlooking Lake Champlain, was home to one of the most vital, yet underappreciated, American military bases in the northeast during the War of 1812. The natural embankment here provided the perfect terrain to build a base along the lake, as it offered natural protection against attacks from the water. Before long this base in Burlington grew and developed into a substantial military and naval presence in Lake Champlain [v].
Although there was only one, minor battle fought in Burlington Bay, a brief attack by British ships passing by, which accomplished little thanks to the level of protection offered by the natural embankment. The British quickly decided to abandon this effort, which they deemed futile, and continued along their, sailing further south. Rather than pursue them, the American commander, wisely, chose instead to focus on growing the size of his fleet in order to regain complete control of the lake, rather than rushing off into a battle that would have been rather meaningless to the battle for the lake as a whole. The base, as well as its fleet, continued to grow and, despite not being a site of much battle during the war, it offered invaluable support for the nearby base at Plattsburgh and other close-by American encampments. The hospital here in Burlington, for example, housed pretty much every American soldier in the Lake Champlain region at one time or another during the war, owing largely to its accessibility from the lake and relative safety, compared to the more battle torn encampments of the region [v]
However, the base at Battery Park’s key role came during the British attack on Plattsburgh in 1814. A large British force had set forth to take over Plattsburgh once and for all, however, by this time the base at Burlington had amassed a massive naval fleet. They sailed to the aid of the forces at Plattsburgh and, together, managed to decisively defeat the British forces at Plattsburgh. This battle was a key victory for the Americans; it crippled British forces in the lake region and effectively turned the tide against them, giving the Americans dominance over the lakes. This battle marked the final British invasion of the northern states, and granted the Americans control over the Great Lakes and New England [v].
Today, the historic Battery Park, one of the most popular attractions in downtown Burlington, honors this military encampment. The park overlooks the lake, offering stunning, panoramic views of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks. The park consists of a promenade, playground, and various monuments to historical figures from the area. The park also hosts a series of outdoor concerts during the summer months, and draws large amounts of business to the downtown area from both locals and visitors, alike [vi].
In terms of historical towns on the lake, Vermont’s town of Vergennes boasts a prime example of downtown renewal that has maintained the charm of the town’s original architecture. It is interesting to compare this town with Port Henry VT, a town of similar in size and located at approximately the same latitude on the lake and downtown.
Comparing Port Henry to Vergennes
Port Henry has only recently begun to revamp its waterfront public properties and has not capitalized on the beauty of its natural location. Vergennes has created a locally owned and run downtown while maintaining the historic character and preservation of its town. By cleaning up its waterfront parks and downtown, the towns residents feel a closer connection with Vergennes and the lake. The positive externalities of stronger community and increased tourism have resulted from this development.
Port Henry has realized the need to clean up their city and waterfronts and have begun to manage these lands. The Port Henry and Moriah website has announced that they will “continue to manage and maintain their respective campground and beach areas on Lake Champlain as public park areas for the enjoyment of local residents and as commercial ventures contributing revenue to the two municipalities.” Details of this plan can be found at the website.
Comparing Burlington: Then and Now
Function & Value of Historic Sites to Lake Champlain
These historic battle sites, and countless others not mentioned here, are key landmarks in honor of our tumultuous history. Their value extends beyond simply their economic worth as revenue generating tourist attractions; they are bastions of cultural and spiritual value in recognition of the hardships and seemingly insurmountable odds this nations founders triumphed against, all in name of the ideals this nation was built upon. Their preservation is intrinsically tied to the preservation of the United States’ history and culture, but also to the maintenance of local economies and the natural habitat they were formed in.
The economic value of these historic sites in the Lake Champlain region to a number of local economies in the area is undeniable. In Vermont alone, for example, tourism generated over $1.6 billion dollars in 2007, and, both directly and indirectly, it supports more than 37,490 jobs [vii]. It is obvious that preserving these areas is important to a number of economies, as well as our countries culture and history in general. However, there preservation is also tied to natural environment they inhabit, namely, Lake Champlain. If the value of the lake is not understood as well and it is allowed to continue falling into disarray, the repercussions will be seen across all aspects of the life in the region and beyond.
Lake Champlain’s role in our country’s formative years makes it more than simply a site to maintain for the various, typically considered ecosystem services it provides. The lake also possesses less commonly considered, spiritual and cultural value imbued by its bloody history. Forgetting to acknowledge this could result in the loss of a number of important historical sites along the lake. While this seems rather inconsequential to the physical world, as historical and cultural value does not, at first glance, seem to offer any direct, real world impact. However, this is not so as they undeniably offer economic value as tourist destinations. In addition, their intrinsic spiritual value has immeasurable indirect impact on the physical world beyond simply their economic value, and to forget that would be disastrous. One’s history is not only an essential to link the past, but also an invaluable tool for improving the future.
[i] Ticonderoga Area Chamber of Commerce. (2006). Attractions. Retrieved April 18, 2010 from http://www.ticonderogany.com/attractions.html.
[ii; iii; v] America’s Historic Lakes. (2009). Lake Champlain, Lake George, and Richelieu River Historic Site Map. Retrieved April 18, 2010 from http://historiclakes.org/contents.htm.
[iv] From Revolution to Reconstruction. (2009). The Battle of Lake Champlain. Retrieved April, 18 2010 from http://odur.let.rug.nl/~usa/E/champlain/champxx.htm.
[vi] Burlington, VT: Department of Parks and Recreation. (2010). Battery Park. Retrieved April, 18 2010 from http://www.enjoyburlington.com/Parks/BatteryPark.cfm.
[vii] Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce. (2010). 2010 Position Statement on Marketing Vermont’s Tourism Industry. Retrieved April 18, 2010 from http://www.vermont.org/pdf/2010%20tourism%20policy%20statement.pdf.