Thursday, June 23, 2016

Ticonderoga to Skenesborough

This past weekend I paddled a 25 mile section of Lake Champlain while enjoying some ideal summer conditions.  The section of the lake between Ticonderoga and Skenesborough (present day Whitehall) is one I likely never would've paddled had I not recently read, and thoroughly enjoyed, Nathaniel Philbrick's Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution.

In describing the July 6, 1777 American evacuation of the strategic Fort Ticonderoga/Mount Independence complex, Philbrick referenced a first-hand account by James Thacher, a surgeon in the American army.  I found Thacher's account of the evacuation captivating, and felt compelled to retrace the on-water portion of it.

Thacher's military journal states: "At about 12 o'clock, in the night of the 5th instant, I was urgently called from sleep, and informed that our army was in motion, and was to abandon Ticonderoga and Mount Independence, I could scarcely believe that my informant was in earnest, but the confusion and bustle soon convinced me that it really was true, and that the short time allowed demanded my utmost Industry.  It was enjoined on me immediately to collect the sick and wounded, and as much of the hospital stores as possible, and assist in embarking them on board the batteaux and boats at the shore."

Fort Ticonderoga being on the west side of the lake, and Mount Independence on the east side were connected in 1777 by a 12 foot wide pontoon bridge.  I had launched at Larrabee Pt. Station on the Vermont side and paddled across, passing where the pontoon bridge would have been, in order to reach the cove below Fort Ticonderoga...
Was this the shore where the batteaux and boats were being loaded in the pre-dawn darkness?  One reason I believe this spot was the loading location is because an earlier map by Thomas Jefferys shows it as "The Place where Battoes and Canoes are Laid up".  If the boats weren't loaded here, the other possibility would have been across the lake at Mount Independence.  Perhaps the 5 larger boats were boarded there.

Thacher continues: "Having with all possible dispatch completed our embarkation, at 3 o'clock in the morning of the 6th, we commenced our voyage up the South bay to Skenesborough, about 30 miles.  Our fleet consisted of five armed gallies and two hundred batteaux and boats deeply laden with cannon, tents, provisions, invalids and women.  We were accompanied by a guard of six hundred men, commanded by Colonel Long, of New Hampshire."

The view to the south...
 ...from where I began retracing the route of the evacuating fleet.

Thacher:
"The night was moon light and pleasant, the sun burst forth in the morning with uncommon lustre, the day was fine, the water's surface serene and unruffled.  The shore on each side exhibited a variegated view of huge rocks, caverns, and clifts,...
...and the whole was bounded by a thick impenetrable wilderness....


 "My pen would fail in the attempt to describe a scene so enchantingly sublime.  The occasion was peculiarly interesting, and we could but look back with regret, and forward with apprehension.  We availed ourselves, however, of the means of enlivening our spirits.  The drum and fife afforded us a favorite music; among the hospital stores we found many dozen of choice wine, breaking off their necks we cheered our hearts with the nectareous contents.  At 3 o'clock in the afternoon we reached our destined port at Skeensborough"...
..."Here we were unsuspicious of danger, but behold!  Burgoyne himself was at our heels.  In less than two hours we were struck with surprise and consternation by a discharge of cannon from the enemy's fleet, on our gallies and batteaux laying at the wharf.  By uncommon efforts and industry they had broken through the bridge, boom and chain, which cost our people such immense labor, and had almost overtaken us on the lake, and horridly disastrous indeed would have been our fate.  It was not long before it was perceived that a number of their troops and savages had landed, and were rapidly advancing towards out little party.  The officers of our guard now attempted to rally the men and form them in battle array; but this was found impossible, every effort proved unavailing, and in the utmost panic, they were seen to fly in every direction for personal safety.  In this desperate condition, I perceived our officers scampering for their baggage; I ran to the batteaux, seized my chest, carried it a short distance, took from it a few articles, and instantly followed in the train of our retreating party.  We took the route to Fort Ann, through a narrow defile in the woods, and were so closely pressed by the pursuing enemy, that we frequently heard calls from the rear to "march on, the Indians are at our heels."  Having marched all night we reached Fort Ann at 5 o'clock in the morning, where we found provisions for our refreshment.  A small rivulet called Wood Creek is navigable for boats from Skeensborough to Fort Ann, by which means some of our invalids and baggage made their escape; but all our cannon, provisions, and the bulk of our baggage, with several invalids, fell into the enemy's hands."

That must have been quite a 29 hour ordeal.  Just when they thought they'd found safe haven in Skenesborough all hell broke loose and they had to push on for 12 more harrowing hours.  The American's erroneously thought the boom, chain, and bridge spanning the lake back at Ticonderoga would delay Burgoyne's ships for much longer than the mere 30 minutes it took for his cannons to blow open a gap.

In Valiant Ambition Philbrick mentions that all of Skenesborough was burned that day except for the stately stone mansion, Skenesborough House, built by Philip Skene, a Loyalist and the village's namesake.  General Burgoyne would use that building for the next several weeks as his headquarters.  The exact spot where Skenesborough House stood is not known today, but within the Skenesborough Museum in present-day Whitehall is a diorama depicting the building with four chimneys as it may have looked...

Benedict Arnold also used Skenesborough House in 1776 for his headquarters when the first ships of our new nation's navy were being constructed there.  Museum models of the Lee and a bateaux...


However the crème de la crème in the museum (in my opinion) is the actual keystone from Skenesborough House...
According to museum staff the keystone was kept in the local Masonic Hall until the chapter disbanded.  It was later found in another Masonic Hall in Rochester, NY.  Today it serves as a touchstone to that building where more than a few fateful decisions were made by Skene, Arnold, and Burgoyne. 
I suppose it was top-center over the doorway that these historic figures passed through...
Is that the reason the Masons took pains to save this particular stone?

Plaque near museum...

Thacher mentioned the distance between Ticonderoga and Skenesborough as being "about 30 miles".  My gps recorded it as 25 miles.

On the portion of this paddle between Benson Landing and Whitehall I was joined by my friend Paul (aka Capt'n Dangerous)...
...who worked for many years in nearby Fort Ann.

We were struck by the amount of aquatic growth already established this early in the season...

Paul paddling through the Narrows in Dresden...
...where the stonework in places has a hand-laid look...

Some vultures near the Elbow in Whitehall...

Osprey nests were noted within several of the aids to navigation light stations. 

The only eagles seen (photo earlier in post) were the adult and fledgling in a nest not far from Benson Landing.

These days a daily Amtrak Adirondack passenger train runs along the western shore and covers the distance between Ticonderoga and Whitehall in 33 minutes (vs. Thacher & company's 12 hours!)...
...and vessels wishing to proceed south from Whitehall can enter the Champlain Canal at Lock 12...

...for travel via the canal south to Troy, NY and the Hudson River.

Earlier while at the northern end of this section, I landed my boat near the base of Mount Independence where the pontoon bridge once spanned the lake towards Fort Ticonderoga on the far side...

It was at this spot that a handful of soldiers were stationed with instructions to prevent the British from crossing the bridge.  By the time the British arrived the next morning, these men were found asleep with an empty keg nearby. (Just a tad embarrassing.)

The view towards the top of Mount Defiance where the British were, somehow, able to haul up and assemble a battery of cannons...
It was the presence of this canon battery that convinced the American commander of Fort Ticonderoga/Mount Independence that his only choice was to evacuate the fort asap.

On July 6, 1777 the American force at Fort Ticonderoga/Mount Independence numbered approximately 2500 men.  While the smaller portion evacuated by boat to Skenesborough, the bulk of the force retreated overland in a southeastward direction to Hubbardton, Vermont where this plaque attests to the rear-guard action they fought there...
By avoiding capture these forces were able to regroup in time to help defeat Burgoyne several months later at Saratoga.

A little trash picked-up along the way...

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