The 300th Anniversary of Champlain’s Voyages
extracted and paraphrased by Mike Sevigny #59 from
“The Vermonter” “The State Magazine” August-September 1909
Ninety- six years ago the 300th anniversary of Champlain’s discovery of the lake that bears his name was celebrated in full by the residents all along both sides. The Vermonter magazine published a double issue in August-September 1909, that told the story of the celebration up and down the lake.
In 1906 Vermont appointed a commission to confer with another appointed by New York relative to a joint celebration for the tercentennial of the lake’s discovery. In 1908 both state legislatures appropriated funds for staging a celebration, along with Canada, not realizing how dramatic the events would be.
Elaborate reproductions of the first battle of Samuel de Champlain and his Indian allies against the Iroquois, along with other historic events, were staged up and down both sides of the lake. This was the battle “by which our north county was opened to civilization in 1609, a year after the settlement of Jamestown and eleven years before the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock.”
“Lake Champlain is about 118 miles long in a straight line. In width it varies from a half mile to twelve miles. It resembles, as one writer says, a long, thin radish, with long roots and outbranching river fibers. At Whitehall, (the Skenesboro of Green Mountain Boy days) is at the little (south) end of the radish. At Burlington it is quite a respectable vegetable; then come blotches of rocks and islands, and beyond that, the leaves, spreading out on either side and towards the north, overlapping the Canadian line. The great, rigid line of the Green Mountains commands attention, well back on the Vermont side, and seemingly nearer, the many ranges of the Adirondacks rise, one behind another, on the New York shore, the highest misty with distance.”
Lake Champlain, along with the Hudson River, forms a natural highway from the St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic Ocean. The Indians could paddle their canoes from one end to the other with only 20 miles of portages that never went above 150 above sea level (which is about 50 feet above lake level). Rival tribes fought over this route continuously, and the Iroquois used it as their great war path until they met the white man. The French to the north and the Dutch and later English to the south took the area from the Indians and began fighting amongst each other over it. Fortifications were built up along the lake and flotillas of warships sailed over it. The battles lasted from 1690 to 1759 when the French abandoned the region after blowing up Forts Ticonderoga and Frederic.
The Revolutionary War poised Lake Champlain as a critical strategic route. The English, now in Canada, felt they could isolate the New England rebel colonies from their brothers in the Middle and Southern states if they controlled the Champlain Valley and the Hudson River to their bases in New York City. “Again Ticonderoga, Crown Point and Plattsburg became invaluable, strategic points, and once more they and all the Champlain valley were at the very vortex of the dreadful forces of war. The control of the great thorofare [sic] was to determine the issue of American independence. It was here that Ethan Allen electrified the colonies by his heroic capture of Fort Ticonderoga and, near Saratoga, after the important victory at Bennington, the most strategic battle of the Revolution was won.”
“In the war which confirmed American independence the Champlain country was again the vantage ground. An invading army of 14,000 men, half of whom were regulars and veterans fresh from British battles in France and Spain, was driven back at Plattsburg by 1,500 regulars, 2,500 Vermonters and a lesser number of New York militiamen. At the same time, in Plattsburg Bay, with a navy built at Vergennes, the Americans fought the severest naval battle and won the most decisive naval victory of the war. In this battle 52 Americans were killed, and many wounded. Not less than 2,000 Americans have given up their lives in battles upon and about Lake Champlain in order to create and protect American institutions.”
The steamship Ticonderoga, launched in 1906 from a yard at Shelburne Point, sailed the lake with passengers going to and from the celebrations on both shores. On one of the days she carries a lake record of 6000 passengers. At Port Henry an electric power plant uses coal brought in on the lake to supply power to smelters at the shore for a hundred tons a day of iron using ore from mines seven miles away at Mineville. The story’s writer, Chas. R. Cummings, reflects on the elegant homes of the city above them and that the workers are mostly foreigners with a few natives employed there as bosses. “Same old story of how millionaires get richer. You can put your finger on the same situation in Vermont - $1.25 a day keeps the wage scale down and profits up.”
A reproduction of Champlain’s ship “Don de Dieu,” built at a cost of $8000. for the Quebec Tercentenary, sailed the lake looking for a buyer. The torpedo boat Manley and its tenders escorted a palatial yacht with New York’s governor Hughes to the celebration at Crown Point. Celebrations were held at Burlington, Crown Point, Fort Ticonderoga, Plattsburgh and Isle La Motte. At each location floating islands, built at a cost of $6000 by the commission, were used to present a pageant of the great battle of Champlain with the Indians at the lake, and other historic events. “… immense green barges, covered with bark huts, evergreen trees, tepees, and INDIANS…”
President Taft spoke to the crowds at Fort Ticonderoga, Plattsburg, and Burlington. A “great parade” was held in Burlington, and included in the participants were: the Governor General’s Foot Guards from Ottawa (“…top heavy fur hats fastened under the chin, red coats, black pants, and shiny black leggins. Nifty marchers and say – what a big band!”); the 15th (11th?) Cavalry from Fort Ethan Allen; a band and a regiment of blue coat regulars from Plattsburg barracks; the Montpelier Fife and Drum Corps (veterans of the Civil War) with 75 school-boys; “Bands were numerous. A body of Knight Templars followed – some 500 strong – conspicuous in which was Malta Commandery from Newport, Governor Prouty’s own town.” and a “galloping ambulance brought up the rear.” The Burlington crowds became so large they stopped running the streetcars to keep from killing someone down. The park was full for the pageant, which followed on the lake.
“At 8:15 the tide of pedestrian travel set strongly down the sloping streets to the lake. On the $9,000 arc-lighted stand thousands enjoyed a band concert and watched the evening presentation of the pageant, given on a big float. Trees, tepees, a stockade, a council fire, canoes and accessories were used in the depiction of the Indian version of the story of Hiawatha, the Mohawk siege of Hochelaga and the battle of Champlain and his allies with the Iroquois. 192 Indians from Canada and Northern New York took part and eight white men, were electricians and leaders. The war dances were certainly noble stunts. Blood-thirsty yells were frequent and at times there was a chorus singing of a unique and surprising nature. The play was “Englished” as it progressed, by words spoken clearly through an enormous megaphone in the recess of a pine tree. The long stage was illuminated by foot-light, top-lights and the rays of several search-lights, ashore and afloat – produced on the spot by a gasoline engine. These, with the silent gliding past of many sections of fixed lights, on the water, the stars twinkling in the heavens and the inky black background, made a scene long to be remembered.”
“The audience sat in appreciative silence. Bands played in the great train shed, back across the tracks, while awaiting departure, or as they marched to the depot – a tournament of music. The hoarse whistles of big boats resounded and the splutter of motor craft on all sides. There was more interrupting noise from water and rail traffic, at times than an effective 4th of July.”
“When the play was over the Protector, a 600 horse-power tug, gathered her charges and set off for distant Isle La Motte. The shrilling songs and cries of the Indians, as the lighted encampment drew slowly out into the lake, were weird indeed, and not without a certain note of joy and worship.”
“At 10:30 bombs went hurtling into space from the breakwater, announcing the opening of the fireworks. Rockets went tearing up, to fall unnoticed. Projectiles winged their way half up, ere sound of their discharge. Champlain’s picture burned in glowing lines of fire and the band played ‘Hail to the Chief.’ Playing fountains of fire changed from enduring white to yellow – whilst aside them water serpents, in mad daring flight, whirled, leaped and ricocheted.”
“There were mines of radiating fire of a size to plainly light up the bay and nearby boats. Then a bust of Governor Prouty, at which the band went wild again. The mast and yards of the ‘Don de Dieu’ (in white fire) illuminated the bay for half a mile – disclosing large white yachts at anchor and idle floating craft. A very bombardment of aerial artillery ended in falling showers of color and left suspended aloft strings of blue balloons, floating away like a flock of geese.”
“TAFT in red capitals burned beneath that gentleman’s picture, an accurate side view which brought pronounced applause. Great wheels revolved in spray, and rockets wildly sought the clouds – leaving ore balloons pendant. Niagara Falls, one-eighth of a mile long, which must have been in place on the breakwater behind all else, proved the culmination of many surprises.”
“But the show was not yet over. Up in City Hall park the Governor’s Foot-Guard band gave a much appreciated concert at eleven o’clock at night, after which the assembly sounded for a return to arms and Ottawa.”
What can we expect in the upcoming 400th Anniversary? Anything this spectacular? Only time will tell.