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Published: September 1st 2014
A Fortified Journey to Lake George, New York
By William Graham Poet, novelist and travel writer William Graham is a resident of Stowe, Vermont. His most recent novella is “The Red Planet President.” He has also traveled extensively around the world and is author of “Seven Continents: A Travel Memoir.”
One of the books that always fired my imagination has been James Fenimore Cooper’s rousing adventure tale from 1826 The Last of the Mohicans
, which featured one of the most iconic characters in American literature: Natty Bumpo, also known as “Hawkeye.” The story takes place in the wilderness surrounding Lake George, New York, which Cooper called Horicon in his tale. I wanted to see the area myself and explore the reconstructed Ft. William Henry that was at the center of the story and which has its basis in historical fact but which Cooper twisted and embellished for his own literary purposes.
I drove from my home in Vermont across Lake Champlain to visit first, however, the magnificent Ft. Ticonderoga, which means “land between two great waters” in the Native America language of the region. The two “great waters” being Lake Champlain and Lake George. The fort,
originally built by the French in the 17th
century and called Carillon, was at the center of the power struggle between France and Britain for control of North America. The French built fortifications to protect the water highways that served their fur trade. By the mid-1700s, the no man’s land of the mountains and swamps around Lake George had become a battleground.
As you enter the fort, you can recognize immediately its strategic placement on a peninsula to repel attacks from all sides. The British first tried to capture Ft. Carillon in 1758 but were defeated. But in 1759 the British mounted a successful assault on the garrison, which the French, however, blew up before withdrawing. The British rebuilt the fort, now called Ticonderoga, of thick, imposing stones. Yet they too lost the fort to an assault by the Continental Army in 1775 that was led by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold.
When visiting the fort and it surroundings, you can see the trenches dug by the various warring factions as outer rings of their defenses. The fort also featured excellent guides that tell you about the history of the fort and how the soldiers garrisoned there lived.
One of the most interesting sites is the King’s Garden where fresh vegetables were grown for the soldiers. Crops are still grown there today. The fort also contains an excellent museum that has pre-Revolutionary military weapons and artifacts. The museum also has many artifacts from the Native American tribes (such as the Mohawks and Iroquois) who had lived in the region since 8000 B.C.
After visiting the fort, I recommend a drive or hike to the summit of nearby Mount Defiance that rewards you with a panoramic vista of fort and Lake Champlain below, and the Adirondack Mountains of New York to the west and the Green Mountains of Vermont to the east.
From Ft. Ticonderoga it is about an hour long drive farther south and west to Ft. William Henry in the resort village of Lake George. Fenimore Cooper would not recognize the place today as it featured a dizzying array of hotels and shops. But the glory of Lake George can still be found if you wander away from the crush of tourists. Ft. William Henry as it exists today is a reconstruction from the 1950s. The original log fort was bombarded for six days by
the French forces of the Marquis de Montcalm. On August 9, 1757, the British Colonel George Munro surrendered. Nearly 2,000 men, women and children were granted permission by the French to march un molested to Ft. Edward, which lay 16 miles to the south. But in a scene straight from The Last of the Mohicans
which was drawn from historical fact, the Huron allies of the French attacked the British column and killed nearly 300 people. In the novel, it is during this battle that the courageous Hawkeye rescued the beautiful daughters of Colonel Munro, who was scalped by the Indian marauders.
To get a fantastic view of Lake George and the Adirondacks, I hiked to the summit of Prospect Mountain. It’s a very rugged, rocky trail that begins in the village and which takes about two hours to reach the top and return. It requires stamina and strong legs to navigate the steep trail, which follows the route where once a trolley climbed to the peak. As I walked through the deep forest, I could picture Hawkeye leaping from stone to stone carrying his long rifle and always prepared for an ambush.
It was a marvelous experience to tramp in the woods made so vivid by Fenimore Cooper and to see where so many important historical events occurred that truly shaped the future of the continent and of the United States. That is what makes travel so special.
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