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Following Fort Blunder...
History, Progress and a Great Depression
It never would have been allowed to happen today. At worst it would have remained unmolested, slowly deteriorating like many similar structures in this nation. More likely, the great state of New York would have seen to it that the massive structure guarding the entrance to the lake would have been restored to its former formidable appearance. But for a different time, a brief, but terrible time we now refer to as The Great Depression.
Fort Montgomery was systematically dismantled during the 1930's. Its great walls of "Black Marble", more accurately known as Isle la Motte Limestone, were removed piece by piece. The massive stone chunks were torn from their places, smashed by sledges and crushed into stones and powder by an enormous crusher set up on the parade ground. It was a different time, indeed...
To fully understand how it was that this classic and beautiful example of mid-nineteenth century American military technology came under the wrecking ball, we need to take a good look at the state of the nation and, especially, the local economy at the time. Millions were out of work, it was a time of great national distress. The future was bleak, families lived day to day, meal by meal. To survive meant to find work. To make work, government on all levels created "projects," large and small. Parks were created, monuments were erected, great dams and structures were planned and completed. Bridges were built. Everywhere desperate men seized the opportunity to work on these life-saving projects. It came down to feeding their families. One did not turn down an opportunity to work in the depths of the Great Depression.
A Great Bridge across the Lake
The idea of a bridge across the lake at Rouses point finally began to be taken seriously during the heady days of the 1920's. The first bridge, at Crown Point, was an outstanding success. It revolutionized transit between New York and Vermont, and in so doing, spelled doom for many local ferry businesses. The economic and social impact of this great bridge was so profound it is still studied today, recently there has been talk of yet a third bridge. This one would span the channel between Grand Isle and Cumberland Head. "Progress" demanded a bridge close to the northern frontier. Much of the material would come from what appeared at the time to be a historically insignificant old fort on the western shore.
On March 30, 1935, Vermont and New York authorized the Lake Champlain Bridge Commission to construct a bridge between Rouses Point, New York and Alburgh, Vermont. Much of the work would be financed by the WPA, or Works Progress Administration. The states and local communities were thrilled, so were local business and families.
The construction contracts were awarded to one Thomas F. Cunningham of Ticonderoga and the Andrew Weston Company of Rouses Point. Weston purchased Fort Montgomery and the adjoining lands of the Military Reservation. He would use an old fort to build a new bridge. Thanks to the Clinton County Historical Association and Museum we have reproduced fascinating images of the fort being demolished.
The Destruction of Fort Montgomery
Fort Montgomery today is but a shadow of its former self. One wall and two bastions along the south curtain are largely intact, and the great arches that supported the western wall remain. Even the south wall, however, was shortened in an effort to remove the stone from along the barbette tier.
Considering the extreme difficulty of the work- this structure was built to withstand cannon fire- it is remarkable how much was demolished in a short time. Work began at the cover face, where a large opening was excavated to allow for the entrance of construction vehicles and equipment. A large section of the moat was filled in to allow for easier access. Demolition of the structure itself began with removal of earth from the top barbette section. After this was complete, workers set to removing the walls. An enormous crusher was set up at the eastern end of the parade ground. Its foundation remains today. The first section to be removed was just to the north of the southeast bastion. Ironically, here at the same location where the wharf was built to accommodate the arrival of stone from the quarries, Weston company barges were loaded with crushed stone from those same great rocks.
Dynamite was used to blast the great walls. The stone that fell in large chunks was then manually broken into smaller, more manageable pieces for the crusher. One can imagine the difficulty of the work- breaking huge chunks of limestone into pieces by hand with sledges. The smaller stone pieces were then loaded onto the crusher where the stone was shoveled by hand into the opening. A conveyor belt carried the crushed stone high up a tower where it was dumped onto the ground or waiting barges. A look at the crusher itself is telling. There were no railings on the sides. Men stood for hours shoveling tons of stone into the maw of the crusher. Stone dust was everywhere. Explosions from the dynamite shook the ground and the massive walls. None wore hard hats. It was dirty, difficult and dangerous work. But it was work. Doubtless the men in these photos were happy to be employed.
The great bridge was built. The Great Depression ended. What was left of Fort Montgomery endures today. In the following sections we will take you on a virtual tour of the ruins.
The author is grateful to the Clinton County Historical Association, Powertex, Inc., Feinberg Library and the late Ralph Gilpin for permission to publish images from their collections.
1 John F. Ross, Sidelight on History. 1978
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