LaChute River trail provides scenic stroll
By Richard Figiel
Two centuries ago the pristine water of Lake George, at its northern end, tipped over a rock ledge into a thrilling Adirondacks sight. French trappers called it Riviere LaChute: a cascade dropping 220 feet in a three-mile dash to Lake Champlain.
Within 100 years much of the river had been plugged with half a dozen dams, channeled through flumes and penstocks, festooned with spinning wheels, and hidden in a corridor of factories. They made the village of Ticonderoga the Adirondacks’ quintessential mill town.
Today, another century gone by, the factories have vanished. The LaChute has reappeared alongside a path that references both natural beauty and unnatural history. Thirteen interpretive signs recall this history along Ticonderoga’s three-mile Riverwalk. They describe, with old photographs, the many processes once powered by the river. They tell the backstories of various metal artifacts, millstones, foundation ruins, remains of dams. Considering the astounding number of structures that once crowded and even spanned the riverbank, there is little left. At times the path skirts past backyards. In other places there is a sense of rewilding. Signs identify nesting and migratory birds and efforts to aid returning fish. Beaver have moved into erstwhile mill ponds.
The transformation hasn’t come easily. Various stakeholders in Ti grappled for 15 years, debating what to do with a scar running through the heart of their town. But, after all, they were dealing with the accumulation of industry—and a polity built around that industry—dating back to 1755 when the French built the Adirondacks’ first sawmill, cutting timbers for Fort Carillon. Water-powered forges and more sawmills appeared after the Revolution, followed by grist mills, tanneries, woolen and cotton mills, a graphite refinery and, in 1878, the first paper mill. Soft, clear water from the queen of Adirondack lakes was deemed ideal for paper-making—perfect for the addition of lime, caustic soda and sulfur to a porridge of wood pulp and rags.
Beyond powering machines and filling vats, the LaChute provided easy access to markets. Canal boats came up the river’s three-quarter-mile flatwater from Champlain to docks at the foot of the last falls. Soon there were half a dozen paper mills operating at falls and dams along the river. At first they produced newsprint, then paper bleached with sulfuric acid. On days when paper was dyed, the river could take on unsettling hues.
The International Paper Company formed in 1898, purchasing one of Ticonderoga’s plants along with mills in five New England states. Gradually all the other LaChute mills fell into IP’s sphere. During the first half of the 20th century an enormous expansion of operations took place immediately above and below the LaChute’s Lower Falls, lining the river behind Ticonderoga’s commercial streetscape. Below the falls, many acres of fields and hillsides were piled high with logs stripped from forests as far away as Canada. At its apogee in the 1960s, the Ticonderoga mill produced 93,000 tons of paper annually, from 95,000 cords of pulp wood.
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In that heyday the entire village reeked with the stench of hydrogen sulfide and methyl mercaptans—the smell of 1,000 jobs. Ticonderoga’s effluent was fouling the south end of Lake Champlain. Vermont was howling. In 1965 New York’s Department of Conservation ordered IP to build water treatment facilities. The company responded with a pilot project but the end had clearly come for the storm water and sewage system. Demolition began along the LaChute as a new, consolidated mill moved all operations a few miles north to the shore of Lake Champlain. The only other mill still operating on the river, an American Graphite plant at the Lower Falls, conveniently burned down.
What to do with the raw scar left across the heart of Ticonderoga? A series of plans and proposals emerged over the next decade. The Fort Ticonderoga Association offered to buy the upper section of the river corridor, adding to its historic park properties, but IP held on while there was a possibility for permits to develop hydroelectric power. Before IP took down its last, newest building, Mill #7 behind stores along Montcalm Street, a master plan suggested transforming #7 into a shopping mall. A state planner scotched that idea by pointing out it would likely doom a good part of the village’s historic commercial downtown. (It would happen anyway, years later with a Walmart mega-store at the edge of town.) Part two of the same plan called for dredging the river into an 18-acre lake rimmed with motels. It also went nowhere.
Eventually IP, and American Graphite, donated land to the village, and disparate factions within the community came together under the umbrella of the non-profit organization PRIDE of Ticonderoga (Preserve Revitalize Implement Direct Effect). Visions of a riverwalk became a reality in 1988 with a $117,000 grant from state’s Environmental Quality Bond Act for Phase One of LaChute River Corridor Park. Work started along the lower section of the river where it passes behind stores on Montcalm Street to the dramatic setting of Lower Falls.
Through the years grants from more than a dozen state, federal and corporate sources have extended and matured the path with signs, benches, plantings, monuments, paving (the route sometimes follows riverbank bedrock) and a few exercise stations. Sections of the upper trail divert to a sidewalk on Lake George Avenue, passing by another side of the mill-town story: a row of modest homes built for mill managers; the opulent mansion of paper company president Clayton DeLano; and tenements for workers.
Last fall the state’s Environmental Protection Fund awarded a $280,000 grant to complete the upper section of the walk, bringing it to a footbridge overlooking the farewell plunge of Lake George. The bridge was an abandoned railroad trestle rebuilt with $325,000 from the state Department of Transportation. The price tag for the LaChute Riverwalk Park now totals just shy of a million dollars. It isn’t done. Researchers at the fort are helping design a reconstruction of the 18th century French sawmill on its original site at Lower Falls, where it all began. Walkers will get a rare look at the water-powered mechanics behind colonial American settlements. And Ticonderoga will get its mill back.
Richard Figiel writes about New York history and preservation from a camp on a tributary of the LaChute River.