The old Champlain Canal and Lake Champlain are the basis for a travel route that traces military history and more.
By Sandra M. Zurl
The metropolitan area New York interstates were bumper-to-bumper. Hoping to avoid the crowds, I opted for the byways instead of the highways. Combining my love of waterways with a passion for history, I headed north, following the route of the old Champlain Canal. Once I reached the canal’s former starting point, I continued north along the shores of Lake Champlain, nearly to Canada.
This drive covers approximately 165 miles and is as rewarding as any slow river cruise can be. You can meander along and turn it into a multi-day excursion, if you like, or a pleasant and scenic day’s drive, stopping at the points that interest you.
The original Champlain Canal was opened in 1825. The modern canal opened in 1916 and ran from Whitehall, at the base of Lake Champlain, south to Waterford, where the Hudson and Mohawk rivers converge. From there, the canal joined with the Erie Canal, which led westward. Today the Champlain Canal is part of the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, a navigable path that covers 524 miles and includes the Champlain, Erie, Oswego, and Cayuga-Seneca canals. Of the original canals built, only a part of the first Erie Canal is still currently in use. Portions of the original Champlain Canal can be seen in some places along this tour.
The Champlain Canal was built along one of America’s most historic transportation routes. This region was contested by American Indians, Revolutionary War soldiers, and troops who battled in the War of 1812. It leads past some of New York’s most important historical sites relating to the Revolutionary War.
Our tour runs from south to north, and begins at Peebles Island State Park in Waterford. This island, whose rich soil once supported pre-Revolutionary farming and livestock grazing, is reached from the village of Cohoes by taking Delaware Avenue off State Route 470 (Ontario Street). Here the Hudson and Mohawk rivers meet, and nature trails feature truly spectacular vistas. The park offers historical information at its Resource Center; picnic areas; and a fishing dock. It also provides a front-row seat for watching boats from the Erie and Champlain canals. (Phone 518-237-8643.)
Your next stop should be Erie Lock 2 in Waterford. A canal “lock” is a section of canal closed off by gates to allow that section’s water level to be adjusted so as to raise or lower boats and barges to the canal’s next level. Three canals connect here: the Champlain, Barge, and Erie. Informational panels offer insights into the colorful history of this “Gateway Community.” You might be surprised to learn that quiet little Waterford village was once referred to as “The Barbary Coast of the East.” Historical panels explain that with the development of the canal system, the cost of shipping freight dropped from $100 to $5 per ton. This helps one understand why forced labor, even child labor, was considered acceptable by many of the canal shareholders.
Waterford was the first incorporated village in the United States, and its old streets often end abruptly at the water’s edge without enough space for larger motorhomes to turn around. You will likely need to park your motorhome nearby and take a short walk to the site, but it is worth it. Don’t miss the canal system map depicted in stone on the promenade and the recently opened visitors center.
Lock 2 is the first of five locks that make up the Waterford Flight. The series of locks gives boats the highest lift in the shortest distance anywhere in the world. The locks extend 1.5 miles, from the Hudson to the Mohawk River, and raise watercraft a combined 169 feet. Enjoy the picnic grounds as you watch the boats “lock through.”
From there, travel north on U.S. 4 to Stillwater. After you pass Mechanicville, with its abandoned factories, the scenery becomes more appealing. The eagle, America’s national bird, has returned to the Hudson Valley. Watch carefully, and you might be lucky enough to spot one.
Right along U.S. 4 in Stillwater is a good history stop: Blockhouse Park, home to a replica of an 18th-century blockhouse that was built from timbers used in Revolutionary times. A visitors center and museum there focus on the area’s role in the Revolutionary War as well as other local history.
From Stillwater, continue north approximately 14 miles on U.S. 4 to Saratoga National Historical Park. This region witnessed a deciding victory in the war for independence against the British in 1777. The visitors center offers interactive displays, military artifacts, and film dramatization of the battles fought here. Within the park you’ll find a picnic area, a terrific view, and a 9-mile driving tour route with markers at key locations. Restoration work in the park is ongoing, as the original Champlain Canal and more modern roads are being revitalized. For more information, phone (518) 664-9821, ext. 224.
Approximately 1 mile north of the battlefield is the Saratoga National Cemetery, which was opened to the public in 1999. (Phone 518-581-9128 for more information.)
Our next stop is 8 miles farther north along U.S. 4, in the Village of Schuylerville. Phillip Schuyler, a Major General in the Continental Army and father-in-law of Alexander Hamilton, was a shareholder in some of the United States’ very early canal ventures. His home, built in 1777, is open to the public for tours from mid-June through Labor Day, Wednesday through Sunday. Period-style events and re-enactments are held there throughout the season. (Phone 518-664-9821, ext. 224, for more information.)
While you’re at the Schuyler house, off in the distance you’ll see a 155-foot-tall Victorian granite monument, a memorial to the surrender of the British Army in 1777. It is actually located in the nearby village of Victory, on Burgoyne Road just off U.S. 4.
Schuylerville offers another stop as well — a visitors center with many names. It’s called the Field of Grounded Arms, Fort Hardy Park, and Schuyler’s Canal Park. The first name relates to the nearby site where the British surrendered their arms after the last battle of Saratoga. The second commemorates the fact that this was the site of Fort Hardy, a British supply depot during the French and Indian War. “Canal Park” emphasizes that this is where you can partake of pictorial and physical opportunities to learn more about the Champlain Canal. You can end your visit with a walk along old tow paths and examine sections of the old canal. The visitors center is near the intersection of U.S. 4 and State Route 29; phone (518) 695-4159 for more information.
Continue north to Fort Edward, where you will find the 1772 Old Fort House Museum. General George Washington was a dinner guest at this private home twice in July 1783, and reportedly enjoyed his visit. You will, too. Five other buildings are at this 3-acre museum complex, including a charming tollhouse, a law office, and a one-room schoolhouse, and they are open for tours as well. The museum complex is open from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. daily between June and August; phone (518) 747-9600 for more information.
Nearby, at the intersection of U.S. 4 and State Route 197, is the Roger’s Island Visitors Center. This museum, opened in 2001, offers a look at area history, from Indian occupation through the Revolutionary War. Evidence indicates that American Indians had been camping on Roger’s Island for many years before Europeans settled in the area, and Roger’s Rangers were based in Fort Edward during the French and Indian War. An archaeological lab is on the site, and artifacts are on display. (Phone 518-747-9225 for more information.)
Between Fort Edward and Glens Falls are portions of the 1832 Feeder Canal system, which was built to provide water to the Champlain Canal from the Hudson River. Stop at the town of Hudson Falls to glean a good view of five old locks called “The Five Combines.”
As you meander along U.S. 4, you’ll see that small towns offer surprises, such as a bank located in a blockhouse, and attention-getting antiques shops.
The first half of this journey ends at Whitehall, the birthplace of the U.S. Navy. The town claims this honor because it was here that Benedict Arnold’s men captured a schooner during the French and Indian Wars. It thus became the first ship of the Navy. More American ships were constructed in Whitehall in subsequent years and used against the British in the Revolution.
Your first stop should be the new Urban Cultural Park and Skenesborough Museum (518-499-1155). The center is located in a 1917 terminal building along the canal. Look up on the mountain across from the Skenesborough Museum, and you will see an old Victorian (1874) stone mansion, Skene Manor. Finding your way to this castle is a bit tricky, but worth it. The staff suggests that drivers of large motorhomes phone ahead (518-499-1906), and they will empty the upper parking lot so that you can turn around with ease. That’s hospitality! The mansion is a nice place to tour and have a bite to eat.
The second half of this Champlain Corridor excursion involves traveling north on State Route 22 along Lake Champlain. This 125-mile-long freshwater lake is the largest of its kind in the United States. It forms part of the boundary between New York and Vermont and extends approximately 6 miles into Canada.
Legend says that when Samuel de Champlain “discovered” this lake, according to his ship’s logs, he was greeted by “Champ,” a large serpentlike creature said to be kin to the Loch Ness Monster. So, keep your eyes open and you, too, may spot the creature.
While you are traveling north along State Route 22 to State Route 9 and 9B, allow time for a ferry ride. Ferries make it easy to cross to Vermont at any time. Because of their convenient schedules, you can plan to visit for a few hours, or take in a full day of sight-seeing. A southern ferry crosses from Essex, New York, to Charlotte, Vermont. The ferry from Port Kent, New York, to Burlington, Vermont, is for those with outlet shopping on their agenda. An upper ferry crosses from Plattsburgh, New York, to Grand Isle, Vermont. For ferry schedule information, contact Lake Champlain Ferries (802-864-9804).
Military history is the focus again near the junction of State Route 22 and State Route 74 at the magnificent old stone Fort Ticonderoga. This National Historic Landmark was originally called Fort Carillon when it was built by the French in 1755, and it played a pivotal role in the French and Indian War as well as the American Revolution. Here the French were eventually defeated by the British, who renamed the stronghold, then lost it in a surprise attack in 1775 during one of America’s first great Revolutionary victories. Excellent re-enactments and musket demonstrations make history exciting at the fort. The collection of arms (including Ethan Allen’s gun), other muskets, and powder horns displayed at the fort museum is world-renowned, and a re-created 1920s garden is among the interests outside. The fort is open daily between May 10 and October 19, from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. An admission fee is charged, and ample RV parking is available. Phone (518) 585-2821 for more information.
Fifteen miles north of Fort Ticonderoga via State Route 22 are the remains of another fort at Crown Point. Originally the French built a fort at this site called Fort St. Frederic, but it was lost to the British in 1759. They built a much larger fort at the site, called “His Majesty’s Fort of Crown Point.” Sixteen years later, the Americans took over, only to surrender it to the British and then recover it at the end of the Revolution. Why all the fuss over one little fort? It is located midway between Albany and Montreal, and once served as an important communication link. Ruins of the old structures remain, and museum exhibits interpret the history of this site. A small fee is charged for admission to the fort’s museum; phone (518) 597-4666 for more information.
At Port Henry, a few miles north of Crown Point, is the Iron Center, a museum focusing on railroad and mining history, located inside a restored carriage house. Port Henry was near a huge concentration of iron ore, which was mined for many years and used to help build the young nation. For more information, phone the museum at (518) 546-3587.
Westport is our next stop along State Route 22. Settled in 1770, it is currently home to the Meadowmount School of Music. If you visit during the school’s summer session (June 21 to August 9, 2003), you may attend one of the school’s weekly evening public performances. A small admission fee is charged. Visit www.meadowmount.com for more information.
Head on to Essex, an exceptional community that contains one of the most intact collections of pre-Civil War architecture in America. A lovely village, hospitable people, and a beautiful lakeside setting all add to its charm.
Continue north by taking U.S. 9, and stop just north of Keeseville at Ausable Chasm. This privately owned natural area offers hiking trails in a cool, primeval forest and along towering cliffs; views of the gorge; and raft, kayak, and tube rides along the Ausable River, with a spectacular view of 75-foot Rainbow Falls. An admission fee is charged; phone (800) 537-1211 or (518) 834-7454 for more information.
From Ausable we move on to Plattsburgh. To continue your education about the military history of the area, visit the Battle of Plattsburgh Interpretive Center, located in City Hall (518-562-3534). Those who are less inclined to military interests will want to visit the State University of New York (SUNY) at Plattsburgh, which offers exceptional fine arts galleries (more than 4,500 works) at its art museum (phone 518-564-2474). Not far from the city is Cumberland Bay State Park, which is convenient for a picnic, or even an overnight stay, as it offers 200 campsites. (Phone 518-563-5240.)
Again north via U.S. 9 is Chazy, famous for the Alice T. Miner Museum, 15 rooms filed with period and miniature furniture; china; porcelain; textiles; and glass, all from the 18th and 19th centuries. (Phone 518-846-7336.) Also in Chazy is Homestead Maple, a company that sells maple syrup year-round and welcomes visitors to tour the facilities. Phone (518) 846-8915 for more information.
The final stop on our tour, via Route 9B, is Rouses Point, where you can view (but not tour) the ruins of “Fort Blunder,” an 1800s fort accidentally built by Americans on Canadian soil. Its given name is Fort Montgomery. Quite a bit of money was spent in this edifice, but it was never occupied by soldiers.
For us, the trip ended in Rouses Point. Time constraints kept us from crossing the bridge into another state or even another country. A weekend, a week, or even an entire summer vacation could be spent exploring the wonders along New York’s Champlain Corridor.
Several Web sites offer insight into the history and attractions in the area. They include www.champlaincanal.net, www.champlaincanal.org, and www.lakechamplainregion.com. In addition, the following area chambers of commerce offer information about the region:
Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce
28 Clinton St.
Saratoga Springs, NY 12866
Lake Placid/Essex County Convention & Visitors Bureau
216 Main St.
Lake Placid, NY 12946
Warren County Tourism Dept.
Municipal Center, 1340 State Route 9
Lake George, NY 12845-9803
(800) 958-4748, ext. 143
Champlain Shores in the Adirondacks Visitors and Convention Bureau
P.O. Box 310
Plattsburgh, NY 12901
The following may not be a complete list, so please check your favorite campground directory or the Business Directory, located in the January and June issues of Family Motor Coaching and online at FMCA.com.
A general listing of campgrounds in the Champlain Corridor is available at www.lakechamplainregion.com, and a list of campgrounds also can be found at www.nycampgrounds.com.
Ausable Chasm KOA
P.O. Box 373
Ausable Chasm, NY 12911
(800) 562-9105 Reservations
(518) 834-9990 Information
Ausable River Campsite
P.O. Box 276
Keeseville, NY 12944
Bolton Acres Campground
RD 1, Box 27
Keeseville, NY 12944
Deer Run Campground
P.O. Box 120
Schaghticoke, NY 12154
Plattsburgh RV Park
7182 Route 9
Plattsburgh, NY 12901
Schuyler Yacht Basin
1 Ferry St.
Schuylerville, NY 12871