Here to return to
A RUIN BESIDE LAKE CHAMPLAIN
“WHAT river is that?” asked the man occupying the seat in front of me as our train began to skirt the shores of a body of water about seventy-five miles north of Albany.
He put the question to the conductor who responded, “That’s Lake Champlain.”
“You don’t say so! Why, I could throw across it! l had no idea it was so narrow,” and the man seemed disappointed as well as surprised.
Considering his Neighbor’s Fields
He would have found a good deal of difficulty in throwing across, yet the lake really is extremely attenuated at the south end, and slenderness is a characteristic even to its outlet. On a clear day, especially, the opposite shore is so distinct and apparently near that it requires an effort to remember you are looking on a lake and not the broad channel of a stream. When the distance is veiled in summer haze or with falling rain this effect is less marked, the other shore seems farther removed, and the charm of the lake is greatly enhanced.
The aspect of the surrounding country is gentle and pastoral. There are occasional wooded ridges, and there are mountains, blue and dreamy along the horizon, that are as calmly beautiful as the “Delectable Mountains” of John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”; but the landscape immediately adjoining the lake is nearly always one of fertile and well-cultivated farm fields. Villages and towns are frequent, most of them wholly rural, with white houses among elm, maple, and apple trees, and a church spire or two rising above the foliage.
The region is not an industrial centre. It is off the main thoroughfares of trade, and, so far as I could judge, even the little manufacturing it had was on the wane. For instance, at Crown Point were iron-works run until recently; but now the furnaces are cold, and the smoke no longer drifts from the tall chimneys, and the huddled, brown-painted homes of the operatives in regular streets with their distressing alikeness and barrenness of surroundings are all vacant.
“It ain’t easy to make small plants pay nowadays,” explained a native, “and this one busted up and went to pieces last year.”
In Crown Point Village
But if things looked rather dismal around the Crown Point iron-works by the lakeside, the town up the hill seemed to be unaffected by the disaster — a simple, pleasant country place, the abode of farmers and a few shopkeepers. It had a delightfully sleepy, easy-going air as I saw it one spring day. A man on his way to the fields was driving two horses attached to a plough through the street, a carriage was hitched in front of a store while the owner was inside doing some trading, and on the door-sill of another store sat two men visiting.
I rambled on past the common with its flagstaff and its soldiers’ monument of the usual type — a column bearing the names of several of the most important battles of the Rebellion with a standing soldier on top, — and I kept on until I left the central village. The houses became scattering, and there were rough hollows given up to pasturage, and, athwart the west, were forest-clad mountains. That it was spring with summer coming was very apparent from the work going forward about the homes — woodpiles being wheeled in from the yards to the sheds, the scratching together and setting on fire heaps of brush and rubbish, and the sowing and planting in the gardens. When a garden was near the road it always attracted the interest of passers, and if a man going along on foot found his neighbor at work with his hoe in the garden plot, he was apt to lean over the fence and get and give some agricultural advice, and at the same time swap the latest items of local news.
On my way back to the town I encountered a small boy, slopping about the borders of a marshy roadside pool, looking for frogs. He had captured two of the creatures and was carrying them in one hand by the hind legs. The boy was perfectly oblivious of the fact that the frogs had feeling. Their distress was naught to him. He had no purpose in catching them beyond idle curiosity — the gratification of some savage aboriginal instinct. When I produced a penny, he willingly set the frogs free and started off in a beeline for the nearest candy store.
A man not far away, repairing a zigzag rail fence, had paused in the process of driving in a stake to watch the frog transaction. He was a stubby, elderly man, with a brush of gray whiskers under his chin.
“There’s plenty of them creeturs this year,” he said, as the boy disappeared; “I got a pond near my house and the frogs holler so nights in that air pond, I can’t hardly sleep. Last Sunday, I believe it was, I got up out o’ bed about ‘leven o’clock and went down and flung some stones at ‘em. They stopped then, but they was all goin’ it bad as ever by the time I got back to the house.”
“How many cows do you keep in this pasture of yours?” I inquired, changing the subject.
“Isn’t that an unlucky number?”
“Maybe ‘tis, but I know I get more from those thirteen than some of my neighbors do from twice as many. I was born and raised on the other side of the lake. They know how to farm over there, and they’re bringin’ no end o’ produce acrost every year that we had ought to raise ourselves. You see this ‘ere lot up the hill here next to my pastur’. It belongs to the man that lives in that green and yellow house just beyond the church, and there ain’t no better land in the state of New York, but he gets mighty slim crops off’n it. I’d like to see a Vermont man farm that lot awhile. If you ain’t never been around in the country over the lake, you’d better pay it a visit; and there’s old Fort Frederick, too, over there at Chimley Point, you’d like to see.”
MENDING THE PASTURE FENCE
But instead of visiting Vermont and Chimney Point I went southward to Ticonderoga. I made a blundering journey; for I learned, after going sadly astray, that if one would leave the train at the station nearest the ancient fortress, he must alight neither at Ticonderoga nor at Fort Ticonderoga, but at a place called Addison Junction. This last is not a town. It is not even a village. The habitations consist of a farm-house or two and several rusty little dwellings in which live workers on the railroad.
I arrived in the late afternoon, and my first care was to find a place to stay over night. Close by the tracks, next the station, was a small house marked “Restaurant.” The station-master assured me I would have no difficulty in getting lodging there, though the prospect of doing so seemed to me rather dismal, but he proved to be right. The restaurant part consisted of a single small room with a counter across the rear. A short glass case on the counter contained a display of cigars, and the wall behind was built up with shelves scantily set with bottles and a few boxes of plug tobacco. The house was kept by North of England people. They had come over twenty years before, but they still retained their peculiar home accent, said “Ay” instead of “Yes,” and constantly addressed me as “Sir”; while the hired girl, after the English fashion, called the landlady “the Missus.” The latter was setting the supper table when I came in, and soon informed me the meal was ready.
After I had eaten, as it was too late to hunt up the old fortress, I loitered down to a ferry not far from my stopping-place. The ferryman was doing some tinkering on shore, and the boat was fastened for the night. It was a flat-bottomed scow that would carry comfortably about three teams. The power used was steam, but many Champlain ferry-boats employ sails instead, thus obliging whoever runs one of the craft to coax it along with oars, or by poling, when the wind is light.
All through the winter the lake is frozen over, and the ice makes an excellent bridge. “You can drive anywhere on it,” said the ferryman, “but mostly they only go from shore to shore, unless they fix up a track for a hoss race.”
“Are there ever any accidents?” I inquired.
“Well, yes, folks are apt to get careless, and they keep goin’ after the ice begins to rot in the spring. The last man that broke through here was a Dutchman by the name of Schwillbug or something of that sort. He was a pedler and he had a fine hoss, and a cart that was all painted up slick as you please. Over on the other side there seems to be a little current at the end of the ferry wharf, and we mostly don’t go off the ice right on to the wharf but take a turn out around it. We told the Dutchman how this was, but he knew better and said there was no danger whatever. So he drove straight for the wharf and in he went. He got out himself, but he lost his cart and he lost his hoss.”
A LAKE CHAMPLAIN FERRY
The sun had set while I lingered at the ferry. Now in the deepening dusk I walked far up over a western hill, at first through the woods and then between pastures and occasional cultivated fields. I went on till from the brow of a hill I overlooked a low valley, a-twinkle with the cheerful lights of a town. A whippoorwill was calling from a woodland hollow, and numerous blundering beetles were. rising from the grass and buzzing amid the new leafage of the trees.
Here and there were houses on the upland, and as I went back I noted them more particularly. They were little, clapboarded, unpainted cabins that bore a close resemblance to the negro hut of the South. Some of them were scarcely large enough to contain one decent-sized room, but I suppose they usually had at least a kitchen, a bedroom and, overhead, a low chamber. Most of the dwellings had an accompaniment of sheds and a small barn, and the premises were strewn with litter and unsheltered tools and vehicles. Under the eaves of each house was a water-barrel and, close
by, a nondescript and meagre pile of wood still uncut. Apparently the inmates never got a supply of stove wood ready ahead, but daily used axe and saw when necessity compelled. The hamlet was a characteristic community of poor whites — a gathering of the shiftless, the unenergetic and unambitious, and to some extent of the vicious. I inquired later about these people, questioning if there was not a prospect of their bettering themselves and whether their poverty was a necessity.
“They live along from year to year just about the same,” was the reply, “and I can’t say as they improve any. They could get ahead if they was a min’ to. But what some folks don’t spend on eatables they spend on drinkables, and that’s the whole secret of it.”
At my lodging-place, when I returned, “Kit” the hired girl was putting on her things preparatory to going to a neighbor’s to watch with a sick woman for the night. “She’s got the typhoid,” Kit explained, “and the Missus and me and quite a number of women around here go in and help what we can. Land’s sake! I do’ know what they’d do if we didn’t, though they’ve got the handiest little girl there I ever see. She’s only ten, poor little soul, but she’s a worker, and she can cook as well as a grown person. Her father’s a brakeman on the railroad, and he says since his wife’s been sick he’s never come home but that girl of hisn’s had the victuals ready right on time. When she ain’t nothing else to do she likes to sit and rock and read. She’s a regular old grandma — that’s what she is. There’s six children and she’s the oldest. She takes good care of the little shavers, specially the baby. Yesterday I gave her an apple and ‘stead of eating it herself she pared it and gave it to the baby. He was sitting on the floor with it when I come away and she said, ‘You bet he’ll keep a-lappin’ that till he’s lapped it all down.’ Well, I must be goin’ or that girl’ll lock the door and go to bed.”
The next morning was fair and warm. The meadows were jubilant with bobolinks, and great numbers of swallows that had homes in the lakeside banks were darting hither and thither. I made an early start and turned my footsteps toward the old fort. It was barely a quarter of a mile from the station in a direct line, but the route thither was by a devious farm road through the fields. This road was little used and was hardly more than a few wheel ruts cutting into the turf. It went through several bar-ways and two or three dooryards and ended at a pasture gate which was wired so securely I was compelled to clamber over.
In the pasture a herd of ponies was feeding and they came nibbling toward me to investigate. But when they discovered that I was bound for the ancient fortifications, they seemed to lose interest and left me to my fate. On the highest slope of the pasture I had seen from afar a group of ruins. The more prominent of them were the gray, ragged stone walls of what had been the officers’ barracks. These were hardly massive or extensive enough to be exactly imposing, yet they looked satisfactorily historic and they gained much from their striking situation. The land falls away to the north and west very gradually, but to the east and south it drops in steep bluffs and green-turfed declivities to the lake, and the height commands the waterway most thoroughly. The crowning ridge of the pasture was upheaved in a chaos of stone walls, great ditches, and grass-grown banks, and there were lesser fortifications scattered over a considerable area neighboring. The walls of some of the old barracks were yet fairly intact, and I could see what had been their original height and where had been the windows and the fireplaces; but our climate is not kindly to ruins, and the stones are constantly dropping and the walls crumbling. It is a wild, neglected spot. The mullein grows stoutly here and there, and I found the mounds and ditches much overrun with clumps of thorn trees and cedars and by a thicket of little poplars with their leaves a-flutter in the breeze.
The sole garrison of the place seemed to be a woodchuck. He saw me coming while I was still at a considerable distance and hastened toward his hole in one of the earthworks. But his curiosity was greater than his discretion, and he would make a little run and then pause to learn what were my intentions. When he reached the mouth of his hole, he waited until I came within two rods of him. Then he dove down out of sight. I stood a few moments to see whether he had gone for good, and shortly he poked his nose out again, and I am not sure but that he had his eyes on me all the time that I spent in the vicinity of his citadel. Few places on our continent excel Ticonderoga in historic attraction. Even the name is sonorous and heroic, and its capture by Ethan Allen is one of the best-remembered events of the Revolution. The victory was a bloodless one, yet the story has many picturesque accessories that stir patriotic enthusiasm. Western Massachusetts and Vermont were at that time sparsely settled, and the greater portion of them and of northern New York was an undisturbed wilderness. Roadways were few and it was customary for travellers going north and south in this district to take advantage of the natural highway furnished by the Hudson, Lakes George and Champlain, and the Richelieu River. To secure this route to themselves the French had long before pushed southward from Canada and built frequent blockhouses and other defences; and in 1735 they erected Fort Carillon, or as it was afterward known, Fort Ticonderoga, the strongest fortress on American soil. So powerful was it that its existence caused not a little anxiety in England. An attempt was made by the English to capture it in 1758, but after repeated assaults and great losses the attacking force retreated utterly demoralized toward Albany. The next year another large force advanced on Carillon and the French blew up that and the rest of the forts along the lake and fell hack to Canada.
By the English the stronghold was rebuilt and its name changed to Ticonderoga, the Indian name of a neighboring waterfall. Because of the strength and importance of Ticonderoga’s location, the Colonies at the beginning of the Revolution were naturally anxious to possess it. The initiative toward accomplishing this object was taken by several gentlemen in Connecticut, who got together secretly at Hartford, in April, 1775, and having found certain persons willing to engage in the enterprise, furnished them with funds to buy supplies and defray the other expenses that might be incurred. These persons set off immediately for Bennington, Vermont, with the intention of getting Colonel Ethan Allen to join in the undertaking and help raise an adequate force for the capture of the fort. On the way their numbers grew to about sixty, and a hundred more men were soon added from the hills of the New Hampshire Grants, as Vermont was then called. A vote was then taken, to determine who should be the leader, and the honor was awarded to Colonel Allen.
Meanwhile, a committee in eastern Massachusetts, unaware of the action of the Connecticut conclave, appointed Benedict Arnold, who was then at Cambridge, “commander-in-chief” over a body of men not exceeding four hundred which he was directed to enlist, and with them to reduce the fort at Ticonderoga. To carry this commission into effect Arnold promptly proceeded to the western part of the state, where he learned, much to his chagrin, that his plan had been forestalled. He then hastened with a single attendant to join the little band in Vermont, and on the 8th of May overtook the Green Mountain Boys just as they had completed their preparations and were about to set forth. But Arnold had no sooner arrived than he asserted the right to take command of the entire expedition, alleging that this was his due by virtue of his commission from the Massachusetts committee. To this high-handed claim the rank and file of the troop strenuously objected. They chose to go tinder their own officers or not at all, and were for “clubbing their muskets and marching home.” Indeed, such a mutiny arose that the whole design was almost frustrated. But the matter was finally settled, and Arnold was to some extent placated by being assigned an honorary place and allowed to move at the head of the column on Colonel Allen’s left.
The Americans by the night of the 9th had contrived to cross the lake, and lay near the fort waiting for daybreak. With the first hint of morning light Allen led his followers to the entrance of the fort. The gate was shut, but the wicket was open, and though the sentry snapped his fusee, before the alarm he gave could summon his comrades, the Americans had dashed into the fort and raised the Indian warwhoop. Little resistance was offered. The few soldiers on guard, after a shot or two, threw down their arms, and Allen strode to the quarters of Delaplace, the commandant. As he reached the door Delaplace appeared in his night garments and listened in amazement to the demand for the surrender of the fort.
“By what authority?” asked the startled Briton.
“In the name of the great Jehovah and the Continental Congress,” was Allen’s reply.
The assault was entirely unexpected, the surprise was complete, and the valuable fortress, with its large equipment of cannon and ammunition, fell into the hands of the Americans at a very opportune time.
Within the next two years they made Ticonderoga a stronghold that they thought well-nigh impregnable. They threw up numerous outlying defences, erected Fort Independence on the bluffs across the lake and connected the two forts with a sunken bridge. One of the great logs of this bridge was not long ago detached and brought to the shore, and an old farmer with whom I talked told me he had a portion of it at his house.
“Some say wood in the water’ll rot,” said he, “but it won’t. You keep wood in the water all the time, or you keep it perfectly dry all the time, and it’ll last forever. It’s wet and dry raises the mischief. This log that they pulled up had lain there and never seen the air in more than a hundred years, and it was as sound as a Spanish milled dollar.”
In spite of all the Americans did in strengthening Ticonderoga, it failed them at a most critical time; for when Burgoyne reached it on his famous invasion, they were obliged to ingloriously abandon their elaborately prepared defences without a shot. To the southwest, on the other side of Ticonderoga Creek, or “Ti Crick,” as it is called locally, rise the steep wooded sides of Mt. Defiance. The Americans had fancied the height was one which could not be scaled with cannon, and when the British accomplished this, Ticonderoga was at their mercy, and the Americans could do nothing but get out.
However, the earlier investment of the place by Ethan Allen is the better recalled. It was far more dramatic — “And yet,” commented the old farmer whom I have previously quoted, “nothing was ever more foolhardy. Allen was completely in the power of the British. He played ‘em a trick and the trick worked. It was just luck. If he hadn’t succeeded, we’d all say what a crazy notion it was. Same way with Funston capturing Aguinaldo out in the Philippines. He come out all right, but it was chance just the same, and it’d been a foolish business if he’d failed.”
The Pasture in which stand the Old Fortifications