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Crown Point, Lake Champlain
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It would be hard, gazing upon Crown Point today, to realize the storms and terrors it let loose upon the English colonists not quite two hundred years ago. Girt by the smiling waters of one of America’s most beautiful lakes, overtopped by a verdant mountain, and gazing out upon green fields in the shade of majestic woodlands, all of the atmosphere of the place is one of peace and aloofness from the pain of human suffering. Yet the name ” Crown Point ” was a sinister thing in the early days of the English colonists, particularly in the northern provinces. The New England matron putting to bed her infant Stephen Brewster or little Praise the Lord Jones, or the Dutch vrouw in the country round about Albany with her little Van Rensselaer Tasselwitch, had but to utter this dreadful name, ” Crown Point,” to bring her child into the most docile state of apprehension. From Crown Point went forth the scalping parties of French, Indian and half breeds, which preyed upon the borders of the English colonies, carrying wrack and horror wherever they went. A glad and beautiful place, it nourished in its heart an evil spirit.
The settlement of the Crown Point district by the French began soon after the opening of the eighteenth century. The beautiful lake which bears the name of its discoverer had been known in France for more than a century, and the country which lay between Lake Champlain and Lake Ontario – all that wilderness stretch of northern New York of today – had been charted with a fair degree of exactness, as well. The riches of the region were well sensed. Accordingly, a large and important province was planned by the French political geographers whose eastern boundary should be the Connecticut and whose western boundary should be Lake Ontario. North was the St. Lawrence River, and the southern confine was rather misty, except that it was determined that it should be all that could be kept from the English. The metropolis and capital of this fine project was to be a place situated at that peculiar bend in Lake Champlain where there was a projecting tongue of land, making a fine site for settlement, fortification and development. In other words, it was to be Crown Point, or Pointe de Couronne, as the French had it. A body of settlers was sent over about 1729, and in 1731 a fortification was commenced at the tip of the Crown Point peninsula, which was named Fort Saint Frederic. The remains of this fortification are barely visible on the lakeside of the point today near the Champlain Memorial lighthouse. And now a few words as to the geography of this part of Lake Champlain.
The lake, as all know, is a long, narrow tongue of water. About midway down it is constricted to even more than its usual slender width (” slender” as proportioned to the length) and the water is carried off at a sharp angle to the east. Just before the constriction, however, there is a protuberance, and on the west shore of this protuberance, or bay, there stands today the thriving little foundry town of Port Henry. Directly across the water from Port Henry, and at the point where the lake makes a sharp bend to the east, is a long, narrow point of land, and this is Crown Point. Crown Point has water on two sides of it. Though only a short distance from Port Henry by boat, it is quite a long distance by land, for, then, one must drive down to the base of the peninsula and work out to the point along the five mile extent of the peninsula. The lake on the east side of Crown Point peninsula is so narrow that a cannon could easily fire across it. Behind Port Henry, that is, on the west side of the lake, is a precipitous mountainside. The Point, therefore, was well protected in the days when cannon were with difficulty to be found in America and when they could not be transported easily through the wilderness of the New World. It could only be approached by water or by the long, narrow strip of land, which joined it with the mainland, and either one of these approaches it could master very easily.
The first fort on Crown Point, Fort Saint Frederic, was a little five pointed star shaped fort. Though small in size, it played a far larger part in events than the mighty successor which the years brought and which we shall presently come to. Fort Saint Frederic was for twenty-five years the only French stronghold in this part of the world. In 1756 Ticonderoga was begun. In the council rooms of old Saint Frederic what strange visitors might have been seen, what bizarre juxtapositions of Old World and New, of sophistication and savagery I During all of its life the little fort was a rendezvous for Indians. Here, too, the Baron Dieskau made himself at home before setting out on the expedition, unfortunate for himself, against Johnson on Lake George. Here might have been seen Montcalm and other of the mightiest and craftiest warriors of old France in the new.
Except as a centre for Indians and a council hall for white and red, the little fort did not ever take part in fighting. When the English finally advanced in force against the strongholds on Lake Champlain, Ticonderoga was the point, which bore the brunt of the onslaughts. First, Johnson came against these two hornet nests of French and Indians and accomplished little. Then Abercrombie made his futile and disgraceful try (“Mother Nabercrombie ” he was long afterward known in the colonies). Finally the two forts fell before the large force, which Amherst, in 1757, brought against them and as a result of the need of men at Quebec, which had depleted their strength beyond the power of resistance. Fort Saint Frederic, like Ticonderoga, was deserted without a shot being fired, though its departing commander tried to destroy it by fusing the magazines.
Under the British the old French fort was dismantled and allowed to fall into decay. So well did the situation of Crown Point appeal to the British, however, as a place of fortification and so important was a hold upon Lake Champlain deemed, that the British began the construction of a massive fortress, on the most approved model, which was completed as far as it was ever carried within the course of a few years after Amherst’s occupation of the point and which cost ten millions of dollars. This is an outlay, which would be large even today. The jagged ruins of the walls of this fort, which never fired a shot in anger, are what one sees now on Crown Point when paying the old place a visit.
When Ethan Allen took Ticonderoga with his Green Mountain boys, Crown Point also fell to the Americans without resistance. It came passively into English hands again and after the Revolution was allowed to fall into decay.
Not far from the remains of Crown Point fort is the beautiful and large monument to Samuel Champlain, known as the Champlain Memorial. It takes the form of a lighthouse and is most solidly and durably constructed. Erected through the joint subscription of the States of Vermont and New York, the monument is, as well, a tribute to public spirit. In character the lighthouse is memorial of the past rather than symbolic of the future; a heroic statue in bronze of Champlain faces the east and at the base of the statue is Rodin’s “La France,” presented to the States of New York and Vermont for this undertaking by France.
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