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Even as a truncated shadow of its former self, it is imposing. It stands silent, almost brooding, in its controversial (and famous) location at the place where Lake Champlain becomes the Richelieu River. Many who have seen its massive southern face want to know more about it, why it is there, of all places. These are the ruins of United States Fort Montgomery.
Few places on Lake Champlain inspire more questions. Its story is one of the most requested pages on the America’s Historic Lakes website. Its tale is a fascinating one of politics and war, friendship and enmity. The stone walls of Fort Montgomery tell the tale of a great nation; they hold secrets from its infancy, into and beyond a Civil War, into the depths of world wars, through a great and dark depression, until today. It is a story waiting to be told…
A Strategic Location
Lake Champlain had long been an important travel corridor from the mighty Saint Lawrence to the Hudson. From the earliest of times, Native Americans had used the water route to travel from what we now know as Quebec along the River Richelieu south along Lake Champlain to Lake George and points south towards the Hudson. These waterways now bear the names given them by the Europeans. It is they who ended up settling these places, using the great transportation corridors for their commerce and their wars.
It was shortly after the War of 1812 that the tiny sand island in Rouses Point was fortified for the first time. Repeatedly mighty armies and massive naval flotillas had traversed the narrow reaches of the river between what is now known as New York and Vermont. The small islands to the north, Hospital Island, Ash Island, Isle aux Noix, had been the scene of frantic military activity and unspeakable suffering as these powerful forces drove north and south along the river. The sand spit known as Island Point would be fortified in an attempt to prevent these forces from using the waterway again.
1907 map showing Fort Montgomery
On April 18, 1818, the state of New York ceded Island Point and some 400 acres to the west to the United States government for use as a military reservation. It had “...been deemed requisite by the President of the United States that fortifications should be erected...” here at this strategic location. Interestingly enough, the land was officially turned over to the federal government well after work had begun on the fort. Construction of a fort here began almost two years previously, in the fall of 1816.
Contemporary sketch of the first American fort at Rouses Point, Fort "Blunder." Robert Bouchette, 1818. Library and Archives Canada.
The first fortification here was an embarrassment in many ways. Despite its supervision by the soon-to-be prominent Joseph Totten, the octagonal, 30 foot high structure was built upon a weak and unstable foundation consisting largely of debris brought up from the demolished ruins of Plattsburgh batteries and outworks. The construction contract was given to three Scots- Malcomb McMartin, James Macintire, and John Stewart. The fruits of their labor would become the stuff of local legend. Many of the stories told of this first fort are true. It was built upon soil later determined to be in Canada (although this tale is much more complicated than it appears in many accounts), it was never armed, and it was abandoned after only two summers of construction. The locals did carry off much of its materials for use in their own homes, stores and places of worship. Fort “Blunder,” as it came to be known, lives on in the walls of some of the more ancient and prominent buildings in the Rouses Point area.
It does not appear that this fort ever had an official name during its short life. It was simply referred to as the fort, works or battery at Rouse's Point. Despite what you may have read, this early defensive structure at Island Point was not named Fort Montgomery.
During its brief existence, the fort was eyewitness to a rather remarkable event for the tiny town on the Canadian border. On July 27, 1817, the President of the United States, James Monroe, visited the fort, spending some time at the still incomplete structure and the adjacent “Commons.”
Images from The Commons on the grounds of the old Military Reservation, Rouses Point, NY 2
(Click on the thumbnails to see full-size images)
The "Commons" to the west
The “Commons” itself has a fascinating story. It was originally part of lands granted by the legislature of New York to refugees from Canada and Nova Scotia at the close of the Revolution. It was here, on the rising ground west of Island Point and the Richelieu that the earliest settlers of the region built their homes. Settlers reimbursed for this land included James Bullis, Joseph Tyrill, James McRoberts, and James Rouse; for whom Rouse's Point is named. The late John Ross, in his informative series 'Sidelight on History'3, tells us that many local residents used the commons as pasturage for their livestock. Locals would have their young people bring the family cow onto the grounds of the Military Reservation each morning through the gate along the lakeshore. They would return for old Bessie each evening in a time-honored ritual that only stopped within the past generation or so.
It was not until 1842, with the ratification of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty and an adjustment in the border at Rouses Point, that Island Point reverted to United States control. By then, the fort had been somewhat dismantled by predation by enterprising local citizens.
Today it seems inconceivable that the United States would feel the need for a fort along the Canadian border. It is important to remember that less than 30 years had passed since a massive British force had invaded the United States along this frontier. An uneasy peace was in place; keep in mind that invasions had come from both the south and the north. Neither the United States nor the British Dominion of Canada completely trusted the other. Prior to building Fort Lennox, largely as a reaction to the first fort, Canada had favored leaving the actual border regions in a wild state, largely as a defense against the United States.4
On July 13, 1844 construction began upon the impressive stone structure we see today- a fort later named Montgomery, within the territory of the United States of America.
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