By Tim Rowland
We came for the flowers but stayed for everything else that was going on at the Crown Point Historic Site on I Love My Park Day, including bird banding, ancient fossils and the greatest Adirondack fire no one’s ever heard of.
I have more use carting around heavy bags of potting soil than curating living things, so the Adirondack Garden Club keeps me around on days such as this one when the group brightens the beds and boxes that visitors will enjoy all summer long.
Crown Point has a lot going on besides stone ruins, but most casual visitors never make it beyond the French and British fortresses built in the young American wilderness that — it seems obvious in retrospect — saw about as much action as a Price Chopper on the moon.
There are miles of trails extending up the point along Bulwagga Bay — they tend toward sogginess, wear waterproof boots — unparalleled bird-watching opportunities and plenty on non-war history including, my favorite, a marble quarry that turned out not to have any marble in it.
The Crown Point grounds were once shallow backwaters of a tropical sea before there was a Vermont or New England and mosses were about all that was living on dry land. Fish hadn’t arrived on the scene, but aquatic plants were growing in the warm waters that were also home to curious creatures that were trying to get the hang of this life thing.
All this is embedded in the rocky ledges of Crown Point in a rather mind-bending way in which you can share space with a crustacean that had its moment on Earth 460 million years before you came along.
By contrast, the great conflagration that erupted 250 years ago last month seems like yesterday.
At least the fire that destroyed much of the fort in 1773 solved one problem, that being the epic boredom of soldiers waiting for attacks that never came in an age when the French were starting to question the wisdom of fighting for control of a frozen wasteland.
Site Manager Sam Huntington said the fort at that time more resembled a state police barracks than a tool of open warfare, and the British killed time by fishing and complaining over the quality of the cuisine, which was too often limited to pork and peas.
A woman cooking a pot of those peas was able to accomplish what the French army couldn’t, that is, destroy the fort by virtually burning it to the ground. Huntington said the chimneys were to have been cleaned in the weeks prior, but a spat between the chimney sweep and the CO had put the kibosh on routine maintenance. So, aided by a stiff April wind, flames shooting from the chimney quickly spread to the shake roof.
The 27-foot-high walls of the fort were built of earth, with (combustible) log walls holding the dirt in place. The wind pushed the fire along these walls toward the fort’s magazine, where 99 barrels of gunpowder lay in wait. Soldiers who had been fighting the fire were ordered to run into a nearby swamp and await the inevitable.
After what must have been an impressive explosion, troops went back to the job of fighting a fire that by now was so hot that later excavations would show subterranean clay had been baked into brick. While their intentions were good, it seemed as if every tactic employed by the garrison could have gone into a textbook on how not to fight fires.
A shift in the wind now had the flames encircling the fort walls, threatening to meet up at the entrance, which would have trapped the soldiers had they not called it a day and skedaddled. With the wooden walls burned, there was nothing left to hold the soil in place, and it slumped into what one engineer later called “an amazing useless mass of earth.”
Two years later, what was left of the fort and its skeletal staff was captured by the Green Mountain Boys, who sent its munitions on to Boston and greater glory.
Captured is probably too grand a word. But while it is possible to maintain that no significant battles occurred at Crown Point, you can’t say nothing ever happened there.