400-acre historic site is on Lake Champlain’s western shore
By Tim Rowland
We will stipulate the importance of military history at the Crown Point Historic Site on southern Lake Champlain.
It was, after all, an exposed nerve in the Seven Years War in the mid-18th century struggle for global supremacy between France and Britain.
The fort era spans maybe 40 years, while visual, historic evidence of life on the point can be traced back more than 400 million years. And winter is a good time to visit, as the site includes several miles of seldom used trails that can be skied or snowshoed past snow sculptures and dog-walkers.
“I actually think the site looks better in winter, because all the historical features really stand out,” said Lisa Polay, the historic site’s director. “When the wind blows snow through the fort it makes a pattern like waves on the beach.”
Along with the ski trails, visitors enjoy snowshoeing over the earthen fort walls or tobogganing the slopes. “There are such clear sight lines of the lake when the leaves are off the trees,” Polay said.
Previous directors have told the story of the wars, but Polay has made it her mission to accentuate other aspects of the 400 acres. “The military history is the primary reason people come here, but that shouldn’t diminish other things that happened here,” Polay said. “It’s like a sleepy little corner of the world that, when you look at it, isn’t that sleepy at all.”
Crown Point juts into Lake Champlain like the thumb on a mitten, forming Bulwagga Bay, which separates the point from the once-important mining town of Port Henry.
It was on the far shoreline that the Native American Princess Bulwagga had to choose between two suitors and the sore loser reacted by pushing her off a bluff into the lake. The remorseful young brave leaped in after her but sank, his jealous eyes glowing green, and he became the legendary lake monster Champ.
The historic site is accessed just before crossing the artful Champlain Bridge to Vermont. It just celebrated its 10-year anniversary, having been built when the old bridge was found to be too dangerous. The bridge includes pedestrian walkways that offer incomparable views.
Ancient ferry piers are still identifiable. One of the earlier licensed ferry operators was Alinda Wells, whose story was researched and told by the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Vermont.
A serpentine driveway brings visitors to a large parking lot facing the lake before the museum, which is closed in winter. But it should be the first stop anyway, since on its window is a large map showing trails and points of interest, as well as a QR code for guides on your phone
So someone in 1871 built a railroad over the water between Port Henry and the point, thereby bypassing the cliffs.
You will see remnants of this road on the western side of the point where the rail bed juts into the bay.
Another odd feature to the west is the perfectly cut stone walls and blocks of the Fletcher Marble Quarry, established shortly after the Civil War. Valuable black marble had been discovered in Vermont, where investors quarried slabs of beautiful and coveted stone for fireplace mantles in some of the finest homes in the land.
They had quite the pile of it, before they figured out that what they were mining was not marble, but limestone. In their defense, this limestone appeared to be black, and after being exposed to the weather it turned gray.
After passing the old quarry and jetty, explorers can scramble up an embankment to one of Crown Point’s formal trails. Skiers can arrive at the same place by continuing past the parking lot and heading uphill to a maintenance shed on the left. At this point, trails go left, right or straight, and it’s good to have a map, because it is doubtful you will encounter too many people for directions.
You’ll be entering a trail system that many visitors may never find. That is a plus for Selena Paquette, who skis the trails in winter and, most every other day of the year, jogs across the bridge from Vermont at the break of day and then runs through the trail network. “It’s very peaceful out there,” she said. “It’s like therapy to me.”
The point for all intents and purposes is flat as a pancake and not intimidating for beginners and skiers with children.
Paquette likes the variety, allowing hikers and skiers to make up a different route with every visit. “It’s a great place to explore, or just hang out by the lake,” she said. And despite the plethora of loops, sooner or later they all tend to wind up in the same place — they are also constricted between the boundaries of Bulwagga Bay to the west and the site’s access road to the east. It’s difficult to get too lost.
Stacy Robinson of Port Henry said the point is a draw for birds, typically raptors and waterfowl in winter. She has spotted 220 varieties and recorded unusual sightings of a northern gannet and a razorbill. That sighting may reflect stresses on its traditional habitat from a changing climate, said Derek Rogers, a veteran birder who works for the Adirondack Land Trust. “To see them this far inland is not really good news,” he said.
Polay said managers are emphasizing winter recreation, clearing trails of blow-down limbs and for the first time grooming with a snowmobile. The site hosts ice fishing activities for kids. It links to a bobolink field and a 150-year-old survey marker dating to the days of Verplanck Colvin, who used Crown Point as a base for his Adirondack surveys.
Going forward, the site will be part of the North Country Scenic Trail from Vermont to North Dakota. The route is being scouted.