Upstate NY fort with long history offers new ways to view it

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TICONDEROGA, N.Y. >> Fort Ticonderoga has educated and entertained visitors for decades with exhibits, fife-and-drum performances and cannon and musket demonstrations.

Now the historic site overlooking Lake Champlain in New York's eastern Adirondack Mountains has two more attractions: a trail along America's bloodiest pre-Civil War battleground and cruises on a boat called the Carillon. The cruises provide a soldier's-eye view of the fort that was once key to controlling the region.

The cruises were offered on a limited schedule last summer but now they're running three times a day, Tuesday-Sunday, plus Wednesday evenings in July and August.

As a narrator on board provides local history, the Carillon gives passengers a perspective of the fort that scouts for the British would have seen while conducting forays by canoe around lakeside French positions during the French and Indian War (1754-63). And they can get a feel for what Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys faced as they rowed across the lake from the Vermont side to seize the fortification from the redcoats in the opening weeks of the American Revolution (1775-83).

Up on land, the Carillon Battlefield Trail, opened in 2013, winds 1.7 miles through the forest a half-mile northwest of the fort's walls. The trail follows the now-reforested area where the fort's vastly outnumbered French defenders beat back a British-led attack on July 8, 1758. Grass-covered, tree-shaded earthen embankments trace the location of zigzagging log-and-earthen barricades the French built just in time to repulse waves of redcoats, including the famed Scottish Black Watch, which suffered hundreds of casualties.

The British and Colonial American troops suffered nearly 2,000 casualties, including 550 killed, while the number of French killed and wounded was around 440. It remained the bloodiest battle fought on American soil until the Civil War's Battle of Antietam. The fort's exit road cuts through the battlefield, with historical markers and other signage along the route telling visitors what happened on this blood-soaked ground on a hot summer day 258 years ago.

During the Revolutionary War, American troops defending the fort rebuilt the outer defenses, following what was known as the "old French lines." It's the nation's largest surviving intact system of fortifications built during the American Revolution, according to Matthew Keagle, the fort's curator.

The French started building the fort they called Carillon in 1755 on a peninsula jutting from the lake's western shore 220 miles north of New York City and 160 miles west of Boston. Commanding a high bluff along Lake Champlain's southern end, the fort guarded the 1.5-mile portage between Lake Champlain and the northern end of Lake George. The fort was the lynchpin in a chain of military outposts stretching from the upper Hudson River to Quebec, all built as the French and British empires, along with their Colonial and American Indian allies, fought for control of North America.

Fort Ticonderoga changed hands six times in less than 20 years during the two 18th-century wars. Abandoned in the 19th century and left to ruin, the property was bought by the Pell family, who reconstructed the fort and opened it as a tourist destination in 1909.

Today, the fort and surrounding landscape looks much like it did to the troops who waged war from stone ramparts and woodland trails.

"That's what I like about Lake Champlain: You can really envision the 18th-century history because it hasn't been overdeveloped," said Russell Bellico, a retired professor who has written several books about the region's nautical history.

While the fort also serves as a museum for one of the largest collections of Colonial-era military artifacts, its emphasis has shifted from static exhibits to interpretations of daily life for soldiers in this 18th century wilderness outpost. Employees in period uniforms still conduct daily musket firing demonstrations, but this season they're showing visitors how soldiers lived at the fort in 1777, a pivotal year in the American Revolution that saw the British defeated at Saratoga, 60 miles away.

Also on display through the 2017 season: an exhibit called "The Last Argument of Kings: The Art and Science of 18th-century Artillery" showcasing 180 big guns from the fort's extensive collection.

Admission to the fort includes access to the top of Mount Defiance, looming over the lake's western shore just south of the fort. In July 1777, the British hauled cannons up the unguarded mountain. The threat of bombardment prompted the Americans to abandon the fort and retreat to Vermont. Today, a mountaintop pavilion with picnic tables offers spectacular views of the Champlain Valley, Adirondacks and Green Mountains.

Other attractions on the fort grounds include the King's Garden, where visitors can get their hands dirty much like Colonial soldiers did while growing food here, and a six-acre corn maze that opens Aug. 13.


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