I’ve known of the Champlain Valley’s storied past for a long time. But despite a lifetime association with the Adirondacks, I had never been there. Being reasonably well-read in history is hardly adequate to actually experiencing it, so when I was hired to teach at North Country Community College’s Ticonderoga campus I became excited at the chance to do some exploring.
And where better? It astonishes me that so few Americans have been taught about the Champlain Valley’s nonpareil contribution to American history. Certainly Boston deserves its renown, but it was Lake Champlain and its immediate environs that definitively settled the fate of North America – not once or twice, but three times.
First it was the locus for the epic struggle between the French and the British for control of the continent, finally decided when Sir Jeffrey Amherst drove the French from Fort Carillon (Fort Ticonderoga) and Fort Saint-Frédéric (Crown Point).
Less than two decades later, it was the setting for numerous conflicts including a series of difficulties and misjudgments by General Burgoyne and his army that delayed his arrival in Saratoga, buying the gathering American forces enough time to win the decisive battle of the Revolutionary War.
Its third role was the above-referenced Battle of Plattsburgh, where in 1814 a fledgling navy and a vastly outnumbered collection of ragged land forces, commanded respectively by two brilliant strategists, turned back the largest invasion force America has ever faced.
But there is older, deeper history here, predetermined by North Country geology: Lake Champlain, Lake George and the Hudson River together form a water route between Canada and the eastern seaboard. All of present day New England is bordered to the west by this route – or, if you will, cut off from the rest of the continent by it – therefore whoever the controlled corridor controlled the Northeast. As a result, the Lake Champlain basin became the most important theater of war in North America.
Navigating between Lake Champlain and Lake George required a portage. There is a connecting river, the LaChute, but though it is less than four miles in length, it’s not navigable. Following a string of cascades and waterfalls, it drops more than 220 feet from Lake George to Lake Champlain, a descent significantly greater than that of Niagara Falls (167 feet).
The last and largest set of falls on the LaChute has entered lore. Below them is flat water, consequently they served as the staging point for a southward portage between the lakes. For perhaps as many as ten thousand years this path was used by the Native Americans. Used for commerce and war the Mohawk called the place tekontaró:ken – “the place between two waterways” – which was distorted by Europeans into the name “Ticonderoga.”
As they explored south from Canada the French followed the same route (la chute means “the falls” in French) and a who’s-who of North American historical figures traveled this way: Father Joques, Sir William Johnson, Lord Howe, Robert Rogers, Marquis de Montcalm, Jeffrey Amherst, Benedict Arnold, Ethan Allen, George Washington, John Burgoyne, Thomas Jefferson.
Recently I visited Lake George for the first time and began to internalize the geography I’d known only from history books. I was wandering around the southern end of the lake near the rebuilt Fort William Henry on a Sunday afternoon when I had a little epiphany: the picturesque waterfall just in front of my campus was in fact the famed LaChute Falls! Here, right below my window, was a historic location of immense significance.
The next day I went to work with great excitement, regarding the falls with newfound appreciation. I crossed on foot to the little park that has been established there and walked its banks. I returned to the campus and told anyone I could find how exciting it was to have LaChute Falls right in front of us.
I think most of my colleagues were a little underwhelmed by my enthusiasm. But not Tom McGrath. Tom is a historian and award-winning teacher at the Ticonderoga campus. Tom is every bit as enchanted with the area as I am, and of course much more knowledgeable. It was Tom who at last gave me my American moment of deep history: that evocative, queasy, magical sensation I’d only had overseas before. When I told him of my excitement over LaChute Falls, he smiled. “You think that’s interesting,” he said, “there’s something better just down the hill to the side.” He proceeded to describe it, giving me directions as to where to walk and where to stand.
Just north of the campus a grassy hill descends into a bowl-shaped depression before rising again to the main part of town. Following Tom’s directions, I walked to the low point of the depression and turned to face south. I stood there, eyeing the contour of the bowl as it ascended the hillside in the direction of Lake George, just as he had said to do.
There it was, subtle to be sure, but irresistibly suggested by a sweeping upward curve flanked by an unnatural deformation in the side of the hill, a too-sharp angle of change as though the land had been dented by a heavy weight. It was a path. The grass grew no differently there, nothing of a trail was marked or maintained, but to someone used to scouting paths in the woods it was unmistakable.
And not just any path! This was in fact the great Indian trail, worn into the ground by Native Americans over thousands of years of as they traveled between the lakes! Here in the Adirondack Park, abandoned long ago but still visible on the landscape, was a passageway through history spanning human time on a scale I’d never experienced before.
The fact of the trail’s existence is not neglected. There is a large stone tablet memorializing what it calls “The Great War Trail,” facing Montcalm Street just in front of the bowl. It’s just one of many historical markers nearby, each inviting a discovery.
Some of the historical sites that are off the beaten path are quite special. For example, the summit of Mount Hope, where an old cemetery rests upon a revolutionary war era earthworks that are still plainly visible, is a remarkable, contemplative place. But it is literally the beaten path of the portage itself – to me the greatest and most important trail in the Adirondacks – that cannot be forgotten.
It evokes a suggestion, a possibility of knowing the very feel of other ages. More than imagination, this evocation is somehow an awareness of many lives lived in joy, fear and toil. It is an intimately human sensation that is more than genetics and less than memory, yet somehow of both, and all the stronger for its mystery.
Photo: the Lower Falls in spring (courtesy Tony Hall, Lake George Mirror).