Charlotte-based yacht club explores military history of Lake Champlain

July-4-B-Savage-Royal-Club-copyBy Will Patten

Everyone enjoys Lake Champlain. It’s beautiful to look at and fun to play in, but the more nuanced history of this body of water is often overlooked, primarily its use in the past few centuries as a battleground and a commercial highway. The Royal Savage Yacht Club of Point Bay Marina in Charlotte, a casual conglomerate of people who enjoy boating of any kind, decided to learn about the lake’s military history the old fashioned way: by traveling in slow boats to all the points on the lake of military significance, walking the land, and hearing the stories.

The tour began with the two forts to the south. Ticonderoga, facing south, was built by the French to protect against a British invasion of Canada; Crown Point was built by the English facing north to protect against a French invasion of the British colonies. Interpreters at both sites recount the building, capture, razing, rebuilding, and abandonment of each fort with great knowledge and passion. A hike up nearby Mt. Defiance makes one appreciate how hard it must have been for General Burgoyne to drag cannon to the top and render Ticonderoga defenseless when the Americans occupied the Fort.

The next anchorage brought the group to the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum and its founder, Art Cohn, who has a knack for making the history of the lake come alive. And no one is doing more to protect the lake’s relics and wrecks. The exhibit “Key to Liberty, The Revolutionary War in the Champlain Valley” offers a holistic understanding of how our lake played such a critical role in our independence.

From Ferrisburgh the group traveled up the Otter Creek to the Vergennes Basin where Lt. Thomas McDonough built gunships that were used in the Battle of Plattsburgh 200 years ago this September. We passed the site of Ft. Cassin at the mouth of the Creek where seven cannon were mounted to protect McDonough’s shipyard.

Next was a visit to Battery Park in Burlington where more than 1000 troops were stationed in 1812 and six 24 pound cannon were fixed. The British did venture south to bombard this battery in August of 1813, but little damage was inflicted.

The club members then sailed across the lake to anchor in the same place that Benedict Arnold holed up while waiting to engage the British fleet under General Guy Carleton in October, 1776. The Battle of Valcour Island and ensuing chase down the lake eventually destroyed Arnold’s entire fleet, but his brilliant leadership prevented the British from controlling the lake, which would have given them access to the young colonies to the south.

After a hike to the old Bluff Point Lighthouse, the group ventured north, past Plattsburgh, where Master Commandant McDonough thumped the British fleet in 1814 and forced their retreat to Canada, thereby strengthening the American hand in the ensuing peace negotiations at Ghent.

Next up on the travel itinerary, a visit to Canada and the British Fort Lennox at Ile aux Noix. This fort was built in 1814, with stone purchased during the war from quarries on Isle La Motte, to protect against an American assault on Canada. Since it was never razed or attacked it is in wonderful condition and tours are worth the travel.

At the end of the day, the club headed back to home port in Charlotte, but not without a smile while passing a small island off South Hero. After the Battle of Valcour Arnold managed to sneak his damaged fleet past the sleeping British and fled south. Carleton didn’t want to believe he had let the small American navy escape. So in the early morning of the next day he spent two hours bombarding the small island that might have looked like a ship. It has since been known as Carleton’s Prize.

From their experience, the members of the Royal Savage Yacht Club gained not only a better understanding of the history of Lake Champlain, but and understanding of the value of physical visits to each historical site. Google is the travel option of choice these days. But to truly understand how important Lake Champlain was, and is, nothing beats a slow boat to the ground where history was made.

For more information about the Royal Savage Yacht Club visit www.rsyc.org or email willpatten@gmavt.net.