A Magical History Tour through Upstate New York

I said goodbye to Jake in the morning.  He was off to teach a class at Syracuse University and I was headed to Maine.  On my way out of Syracuse I stopped at Wegman’s grocery store in the nearby town of Manlius to get some food – and for old time’s sake.  Wegman’s is only a few miles from my brother Don’s former house and was where I always shopped whenever I visited him, before he moved to Connecticut several years ago, so I figured if I couldn’t stop and see my brother here in Syracuse, at least I could stop at his grocery store!

 
 
Above:  From Jamesville I continued east down the Mohawk River Valley, then turned north and visited the Saratoga battlefield.  Afterwards I continued north up the Hudson River Valley and camped that night at Crown Point State Park.

 

I’d been debating where to go from this point.  My general plan was to get to northern Maine to visit the three extreme geographic compass points there – the northeasternmost point in the U.S., as well as the north-northeasternmost and east-northeasternmost points.  And the sooner the better, because it was late September and from my previous road-trips through northern New England, I knew that the cold weather, and even snow, can descend on that area anytime now.  

I didn’t have a specific plan though, so I pondered my options.  I could visit Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame, which is a terrific place, but I’d been there before, back in 1995.  I decided instead to take a brief historic tour of upstate New York and visit the Saratoga Battlefield, a few hours to the east, then continue on to Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point.

The rolling hills of upstate New York were beautiful.  It was a few weeks before peak fall colors, which is usually around mid-October, and the trees were just beginning to turn a bit golden.  I followed Interstate 90 for a few hours east along the Mohawk River valley and the Erie Canal, then pulled into Saratoga National Historical Park around 2 p.m.  The last time I’d visited Saratoga was about 30 years ago, also in the fall, but I barely remember it. 

As you know if you’ve been reading my website, I’m a big history buff; in fact, history and geography are my two favorite topics.  I’d been reading about Revolutionary War sites like Saratoga ever since I was seven years old, when my brother Don gave me a book on the American Revolution, which was one of my favorite Christmas presents of all time.  He followed that up 10 years later by giving me a huge atlas of Revolutionary War battles, which was an even better Christmas present.  So please indulge me in this entry as I explain the historic sites I visited, the first being Saratoga.

A Little Historical Background...

But first, let me provide some context for those who fell asleep during their High School history class.  There were two main wars in North America in the 1700s:  the French and Indian War, and the Revolutionary War.  The first was about territorial conflict and the second was about independence.  Many people get them mixed up, but let me briefly explain them. 

The French and Indian War, called the “Seven Year’s War” in Europe, lasted from 1754-1763 (wait a minute, that’s nine years).  It pitted the British against the French in various theaters around the world, including here in the British colonies of North America.  During the French and Indian War, the French and the Indians (most tribes here, at least) fought against the British army and the American colonists.  Yep, the young George Washington once fought with the British army.  The British won that conflict and the French ceded to them all of the French territory east of the Mississippi River, plus Canada.  Even though Canada is now part of the British commonwealth, it was originally settled by France in the 1600s, which is why there are two official languages in Canada.

After the French and Indian War, in 1764, the British started taxing the American colonists to help cover the British cost of protecting the colonists.  Well, that idea didn't go over too well among the Americans, so they boycotted British imports (the Boston Tea Party) and attacked the tax collectors, so the British brought in their army to protect the poor tax guys.  But the British army's presence in America caused further conflicts with the colonists, like the Boston Massacre in 1770.  Those conflicts finally led to the Revolutionary War, which was fought from 1775-1783 and which, of course, the Americans won.  

If the British had won the Revolutionary War, Americans would all be talking funny and drinking tea.  Well, some Americans in the south do talk funny and drink tea (well, iced tea), but that’s another story. And if the French had won the French and Indian War, Americans might all be speaking French now, oui?

From Saratoga to Crown Point

That's my brief history lesson for today, so now back to my travels.  Like I say, my first stop today was at Saratoga, about an hour north of Albany.  This was the site of probably the most important battle of the American Revolution.  In 1777, a few years into the Revolutionary War, a large British army marched south from Montreal heading towards Albany and New York City, in hopes of cutting off New England from the rest of the American colonies.  The British made slow progress, though, as they headed down the Hudson River valley and were met by an American army here on the hills overlooking the Hudson, near a place called Saratoga. 

After an initial battle, in September 1777, the British dug in and waited for reinforcements from New York, which never came.  A second battle ensued a few weeks later, the Americans were victorious and the British surrendered.  One of the American heroes of the battle was the temperamental-but-brilliant general, Benedict Arnold, one of the most daring, brazen and accomplished leaders of the Continental Army who, a few years later and after feeling snubbed by his American commanders, turned traitor.  But the Battle of Saratoga was crucial because afterwards, the French government decided to ally with the American rebels and the French participation was critical to the eventual American success.  For that reason, many historians consider Saratoga to be the turning point of the American Revolution.

I spent a half-hour in the National Park Visitor Center and watched a 20-minute film describing the conflict, then I got in my truck and toured the battlefield.  It was a pleasant fall afternoon, about 60 degrees, and I had a nice drive around the park, stopping at all the sites. 

I left Saratoga around 3:30 p.m. and continued north up the Hudson River valley, passing by Lake George. Remember the scene in the movie “Last of the Mohicans" where the British fort was under siege during the French and Indian War?  That was Fort William Henry, a few miles from here in the town of Lake George.  Even if the movie isn’t a true portrayal of James Fenimore Cooper’s book, as my friend Jake had astutely pointed out the previous evening, it’s still one of my favorite movies.

Late in the afternoon I reached Fort Ticonderoga, a large star-shaped fort built in 1755 by the French at a strategic location on the south end of Lake Champlain, at the start of the French and Indian War – the French army's answer to the nearby British's Fort William Henry.  I’ve been to a lot of forts around the country, but I think Ticonderoga is probably the best-preserved and most impressive fort in America. It has also caused me a lot of frustration.

You see, back in 1984, during a road trip around America when I was in college, I stopped at Fort Ticonderoga one afternoon but couldn’t afford the $10 admission fee, so I just took some pictures from the outside.  Then in 1995, during another road trip around America, I stopped again at Ticonderoga hoping to see the inside.  This time I could afford the admission (now $15) but it was late in the day and the fort had just closed, and I had to get to my friend Julie's place in Vermont by nightfall so I couldn't stick around another day.  So during one visit I had the time to see the fort but didn’t have the money, and the next visit I had the money to see the fort but didn’t have the time.

And wouldn’t you know it, once again I arrived just minutes after the fort closed.  In fact, a guy who was dressed up in colonial garb was moving a big “Closed” sign across the road just as I pulled up, so I was dejected.  I told him my story and he said, “Come back tomorrow!  It opens at 9:30.”  Maybe, we’ll see...

I left Ticonderoga and drove a few miles north and pulled into Crown Point State Park which, like Ticonderoga, is the site of a historic fort from the 1700s that overlooks Lake Champlain.  I found a campsite and cooked up dinner.  The park has a large, rustic campground but there were only about five other campers there that night, so I had it pretty much to myself.  Tonight was the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.  I normally don’t watch much streamed video on my cell phone, since I only have 6 GB of data per month, but I was so curious that tonight I made an exception.  And I’m glad I did, because along with being a history and geography buff, I’m a political junkie, as well.   

Upstate New York

The Third Time's the Charm

The campground at Crown Point State Park was quiet; there were only a few folks camping here.  In the morning after breakfast, I walked to the top of an impressive stone cylindrical building which, as I learned, had once been a lighthouse and was now a memorial to the French explorer, Samuel Champlain.  The view of Lake Champlain from the top was astounding on this beautiful, sunny morning.  Lake Champlain, extending from Canada south for nearly a hundred miles into central New York, was a critical transportation corridor back in the 1700s and, seeing how it narrowed here to just a few hundred yards wide, I quickly understood why Crown Point was such a strategic site. 

 
 
Above:  In the morning I explored two historic forts along Lake Champlain:  Crown Point and Ticonderoga.  Then I drove into Vermont and visited Burlington and Montpelier, then continued east, pulling into White Lake State Park well after sunset.

 

The French thought so, too, and in the 1730s they built a fort a short distance away, which I explored.  The British kicked out the French in 1759 during the French and Indian war and built a much larger fort here, which lasted until a fire wiped it out in 1773. The strategic importance of both Crown Point and Fort Ticonderoga, 15 miles south of here, had dwindled by this time, because the British/French frontier had moved farther west, so after the fire, Crown Point faded into obscurity.  Today Crown Point is preserved as a New York State Park and they’ve done a wonderful job of explaining its history.  In fact, I was so impressed that I took a panorama photo.

Around 11 a.m. I left New York and crossed the magnificent Lake Champlain bridge into Vermont, but then I started thinking about Fort Ticonderoga.  Though I’d tried to see it three times in the last 32 years, I’d never been inside Fort Ticonderoga, and I wasn’t sure when I’d get back to this area again to see it.  Therefore I turned my truck around and headed back over the bridge into New York, then drove 15 miles south to the fort.  I was in a hurry to get up to Maine, but heck, I figured I could spare a couple hours. 

I paid the admission fee (now $21) and spent about 90 minutes exploring Fort Ticonderoga, imagining what it must've been like, first for the French in the 1730s, then the British in the 1760s, then ultimately the Americans, when Ethan Allen captured the fort from the British in 1775 during the early days of the Revolutionary War.  The fort is pretty impressive and there were some living history demonstrations going on, but because it was late in the season, it was fairly quiet and there weren’t too many visitors.  I would imagine it’s a real zoo in the summer months.

By the way, if you like historic forts, you need to visit Louisbourg in Nova Scotia.  Louisbourg is like “Williamsburg North” and is an amazing reconstruction of the French fort and village, which the British conquered in 1755 during the French and Indian War.  Based on a friend’s recommendation, I visited Louisbourg back in 1995 and was blown away.  I was at Louisbourg for several hours one afternoon but could’ve spent many days there.  I’m a big history buff (can’t you tell?) and Louisbourg is, hands down, one of the most impressive historical sites I’ve ever visited.  I enjoyed Ticonderoga too, however, and was glad to finally see it – the third time (or maybe fourth) was the charm. 

It was now early in the afternoon and I got back in the truck and headed north, again crossing over the Lake Champlain bridge into Vermont.  An hour later I reached Burlington and drove around the downtown area, hoping to park somewhere so I could get out and see Lake Champlain (or at least Bernie Sanders).  But parking in Burlington during the weekdays is pretty tight, as I discovered, and I saw no trace of Bernie, so I continued through town, then got on the Interstate and headed east, reaching Montpelier around 3 p.m.  Back in 1995 I spent a few days in Montpelier visiting Julie, a former BLM colleague who was living here then, but I hadn’t been back since.  Montpelier is not just the capital of Vermont, though; it’s the smallest capital city in the U.S., with a population of just 7,671.  So even though it’s a capital city, Montpelier has a very organic, small-town and laid-back atmosphere.  I liked it a lot.

I pressed on into New Hampshire late in the afternoon, following U.S. Highway 302 through an impressive area called Crawford Notch, with granite cliffs rising several hundred feet on either side.  By the way, a “notch” in New England is what they call a “gap” in the southeast – like Cumberland Gap – or a “valley” in the west – like Death Valley.  Geographic colloquialisms around America have always fascinated me.  Is it a "soda" or a "pop"?  A license "plate" or a "tag"?  It depends on where you live. 

Anyway, well after dark I pulled into White Lake State Park, south of Conway, New Hampshire, and by the light of my headlights I found a campsite in the mostly-deserted campground.  I heated up a quick dinner and had a soda (or was it a pop?) and went straight to bed, because I knew it would be a long drive tomorrow.

Two Forts (but no Bernie):  New York, Vermont and New Hampshire