The Importance of Lake Champlain

New England
Capt. Jeff

The freshwater Lake Champlain stretches 125 miles from Whitehall, NY, to the Richelieu River in the Canadian province of Quebec, and it only measures 14 miles across at its widest point. The Lake Champlain Valley provides a natural divide between the Green Mountains of Vermont and Adirondack Mountains of New York.

Today, Lake Champlain is a recreational lake and dubbed the Adirondack Coast. It offers almost 600 miles of shoreline to explore. The lake has sandy shores, tucked-away bays, panoramic mountain backdrops and long reaches ideal for sailing.

During the Colonial Era, lakes and rivers were more reliable methods of transportation than muddy roads. Boats in the warm weather and sleighs on ice during the frozen winter months were the preferred means of passage on this working lake.

Throughout the Revolutionary War, Lake Champlain was central to the British strategy of cutting off New England from the rest of the colonies. This north/south route connected Montreal in British Canada with colonial New York at the mouth of the Hudson River. If the British could maintain control of Lake Champlain and the Hudson River Valley, the rebels could be isolated and dealt with piecemeal.

Key to guarding the colonies from invasion from the north were two forts at narrows near the southern end of Lake Champlain Fort Crown Point and Fort Ticonderoga. Both were originally built by the French but were lost to the British in 1759 during the French and Indian War. Whoever commanded these forts, controlled the lake. At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, British Redcoats lightly garrisoned those forts. In May 1775, less than a month after the famous ride of Paul Revere, the revolutionary Green Mountain Boys captured both forts in surprise attacks. By 1776, the Continental Army under George Washington's command had some success, and the British divide and conquer plan had to be implemented as soon as possible.

In 1777, General John Burgoyne led a British invasion force south from Montreal to capture Albany. His army marched along the shore of Lake Champlain and recaptured Fort Ticonderoga from the Continental Army, regaining control of the Champlain Valley. Burgoyne was then free to attack Albany.

Before Burgoyne could reach his goal, he was stopped at Saratoga, NY, by the Continental Army's forces under the command of generals Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold. After fighting two losing battles and being outnumbered more than two to one by the colonists, Burgoyne surrendered. His defeat marked a major turning point in the American Revolution that culminated in the founding of the United States of America. It also secured a place in history for Lake Champlain, as the young nation built popular legends about Fort Ticonderoga.

Fort Crown Point is now an historic site dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of the ruins of two fortifications from the colonial wars between the British and French, as well as the occupation by General Burgoyne in 1777. Recently restored Fort Ticonderoga offers educational activities and tours by volunteers from the America's Fort Organization.

Chance Encounter with a Champ

History has an unusual footnote for Lake Champlain. The lake's namesake, Samuel de Champlain, wrote in 1609 that he saw a scaly monster five feet long and as thick as a man's thigh in the water. Native American tribes have also reported similar sightings over the years. This monster is now part of the fabric of local lore with sports teams like the Vermont Lake Monsters, and Champ, the mascot of Vermont's minor league baseball team.

Many people believe Champ to be a living plesiosaur. After enjoying a day on the water under sail or motoring along, cocktails at sunset are known to increase the possibility of Champ sightings.

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