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The North East Passage: New York to Montreal

During America’s colonial era and for the first half century of the United States, the most important passage for travel and commerce in North America was the waterway from the Hudson River to Lake Champlain and on to Montreal and Quebec City via the Richelieu and Saint Lawrence Rivers. This corridor was also of paramount strategic military importance. It played a pivotal role in the French and Indian and Revolutionary wars, as well as in the War of 1812. Later canals connecting the Hudson to Lake Champlain and circumventing the Richelieu River rapids created a seamless commercial and tourist corridor from New York City to Montreal.

In an epic historical coincidence, Henry Hudson first navigated the river bearing his name the same year that Samuel de Champlain sailed into the “inland sea” he had heard of through his Native American allies in Quebec. Both men were skilled navigators and cartographers looking for a passage to the west. Both had previously explored the coast of North America from Nova Scotia down to Cape Cod. Now their explorations would change America forever.

The European powers that spawned the two explorers, Britain and France, were at war constantly for two centuries starting in the late 17th Century. Lake Champlain—extending 118 miles south from the mouth of the Richelieu River in Quebec to Whitehall, New York—became a the North American battleground during these 200 years for skirmishes between the two rival colonial powers and their Native American allies. Previous to their arrival, the lake and the rivers feeding it provided a major travel route for, as well as a boundary line between, the Algonquins and Iroquois, the major tribal confederations of the region. In his discovery of the Lake that bears his name Champlain set the future pattern for Indian Alliances. Led by Algonquin of the Huron tribe into the lake, he helped them defeat a band of Iroquois at Crown Point ushering in over 200 years of perpetual conflict for control of the great eastern waterway. Both Britain and France built a succession of forts up and down the shores of 490 square miles of the waterway that constituted a disputed border between their colonial domains. The French supported by their Algonquin Allies controlled the north, from Montreal down the Richelieu River and Lake Champlain to their stronghold at Forts Carillon and Frederic (renamed Ticonderoga and Crown Point by the British). The English captured New York from the Dutch and controlled and settled the Hudson River. They defended the waterway north of Albany with a series of forts on and near Lake George. After suffering a grievous loss at Fort William Henry at the foot of Lake George in 1757, the English Invaded north in 1758 under James Abercromby only to lose an Army against the ramparts of the French Fort Carillon. The following year they brought their Navel might to bear and the Siege of Quebec spelled the end of New France forcing the French to abandon their Lake stronghold and ultimately the Northeast.

The vicissitudes of war and life on the frontier deterred all but the most hardy and adventuresome from attempting settling on the shores of Lake Champlain until after the War of Independence. The British offered small land grants near their forts to its soldiers once they completed their terms of service; the French never saw settlement south of Quebec as a strategic goal. Most early settlers were forced to abandon their property during the Revolutionary War due to most home owners being unable to protect or support their households, combined with the constant threat of raids by murderous roving Native American war parties.

During the War of Independence, the waterway provided a stage for such colorful and heroic figures as Nathaniel Greene, Ethan Allen, Benedict Arnold, John Burgoyne, Horatio Gates, Robert Rogers, and “Mad Anthony” Wayne. Historians cite Arnold’s engagement of Burgoyne’s fleet at Valcour Island, coupled with the subsequent American triumphs near Bennington and Saratoga, as an early tidal shift in the war, forcing the British to retreat north to Canada.

Following the war, Vermont’s fertile Champlain Valley lured hundreds of enterprising families to the eastern shore of the lake. The craggy Adirondack foothills of New York proved less hospitable, though a few vibrant communities such as Whitehall, Willsboro, Essex, and Plattsburgh, and rose up on the western shore. In 1793, when Britain’s Prince Edward visited Burlington, he found only about a half dozen dwellings dotting the lakefront. By the time of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s and Charles Dickens’ visits in the mid-1830s, however, the Queen City was bustling with activity. The early fur trade that helped make John Jacob Astorr&squo;s fortune had given way to a boom in lumber and other industries spurred, in part, by the opening of the Champlain Canals, linking Montreal to America’s largest port, New York City. Burlington Vermont rose from being a backwater to being one of the foremost trade links of the time.

Wrote Dickens, “There was a pleasant mixture of people in the square of Burlington, such as cannot be seen elsewhere, at one view: merchants from Montreal, British officers from the frontier garrison, French Canadians, wandering Irish, Scotchmen of a better class, gentlemen of the south on a pleasure tour, country squires on business; and a great throng of Green Mountain boys, with their horse-wagons and ox-teams, true Yankees in aspect, and looking more superlatively so by contrast with such a variety of foreigners.”

Regular steamboat service began on the Hudson, when Robert Fulton launched the Clermont in 1807. Its regular service between New York and Albany changed the world. For the first time in history, long distant travel became dependable and plans could be made on a timetable not subject to the vagaries of the season, the wind, or weather. The next year the Winan Brothers, who had built the Clermont for Fulton, built the Vermont, on Lake Champlain; it became the first successful commercial steamboat to operate on a Lake. It was the only infringement upon his patent on Steamship travel that Fulton did not challenge. Like the Hudson, Lake Champlain was beginning to host a vigorous transit traffic traveling on steamboats, But the real traffic was in goods, and like the Hudson, the lake was dotted with sailing craft of every variety. Giddeon King alone boasted a fleet of 50 vessels.

In 1812 this Lake born commerce disappeared from Champlain when a British fleet was assembled in St. Jean Quebec to ply and control its waters. The fledging American Nation answered in kind, building a formidable fleet, which, in 1814 under Commodore McDonough, drew the British into Plattsburgh Bay, where the Americans won a resounding victory. For the second time, a great navel engagement had been fought on Lake Champlain that determined the fate of North America.

By the time the Champlain Canals opened in 1824 and the Erie Canal the following year, daily steamer service was available from Albany north. Now Canal connections to Lake George and Champlain made it possible buy a through ticket from New York to Montreal and expect to make the trip in about 48 hours. Soon, Albany became the major interior transportation hub where railroads, canals and the great river all came together.

The steamboats on the waterway were run by series of determined, crafty and often cutthroat entrepreneurs. Fulton and partner Robert Livingston’s company enjoyed a monopoly on Steamship travel until after their deaths, when in 1924 the US Supreme Court declared the it unconstitutional. This sparked a frantic competition marked by predatory pricing and often reckless and occasionally deadly races up the river and lakes to prove whose ships were the fastest. Among the colorful tycoons of the steamboat era were Thomas Cornell, Alfred Van Santvoord, “Admiral” Gideon King, LeGrand B. Cannon, and a notorious pair of connivers, New York’s Daniel Drew and Vermont’s Oscar Alexis Burton.

The coming of railroads up the shores of the river and later the lake might have spelled the end of the steamboat era were it not for the fact that the owners of were more often than not one and the same companies, which designed first class excursions between New York and Montreal employing a combination of water and rail transport. For example the Delaware & Hudson RR President LeGrand B. Cannon also owned CCT, Vermont’s largest Steamboat company. During the Civil War, steamboats were sometimes used to ferry soldiers south and fugitive slaves north. This was but one chapter in the time honored use of the lake to smuggle all description of goods and human cargo to and from Canada, from furs in the 17th and 18th Centuries to illicit drugs and refugees in the 20th.

As the steamboats became faster and larger, so too did they become more luxurious, often being referred to as “floating palaces,” carrying presidents, foreign nobles, and homegrown aristocrats like Cornelius Vanderbilt and J.P. Morgan, many of whom owned estates on the Hudson. Even the Vermont III, christened 1902, featured plush carpeting, mahogany furniture, a barbershop and newsstand, and could accommodate up to 1000 passengers.

The steamboat traffic spawned a profusion of luxury hotels up and down the waterway, notably the famous Catskill area resorts—the Overlook Hotel the Catskill Mountain House, Cliff House and Wildmere; the Mountain House and the largest, the Kaaterkill Hotel, boasting 1000 rooms—and the magnificent Hotel Champlain, three miles south of Plattsburgh, that President McKinley made his summer White House in the late 1890s. (Vice President Theodore Roosevelt was visiting Vermont in 1901 when he learned McKinley had been shot in Buffalo.)

During the tricentennial celebration of Champlain’s voyage down the lake in 1909, the Hotel Champlain hosted President Taft, Quebec’s premier, and the French and British ambassadors to the U.S., among other notables. The hotel burned to the ground the following year.

The Burlington-based Lake Champlain Transport Company launched its last steamboat, the 220' Ticonderoga, in 1906 while the Hudson River’s Day and Night Lines christened 420' giants like the Washington Irving and the Trojan.

The Vermont steamboat company’s 100th anniversary celebration in 1926 has been described as more like a wake, with only the Ticonderoga and the Vermont III still in service. While the northern Lake boat travel began to founder, the Lower Hudson entered a gilded age, when the largest River boats ever built captivated an avid clientele. But the financial collapse of 1929 ended this resurgence. Continuous rail service from New York to Montreal significantly cut into the once vibrant tourist trade, but the steamboat builders and hoteliers could not have predicted the momentous impact the novelty contraption known as the automobile was about to have. Within a decade the grand Hotels and Boats were mere relics of a bygone era. The Night Line’s Trojan had to change its name, as it became a standing joke in association with its reputation for being no more then a floating bordello only attended by the seediest crowd. The great steamboat lines spiraled downward competing for the simple freight service of ferrying cars across the Hudson and Lake Champlain. Even the once mighty railroads have all but disappeared in the wake of interstates and air travel.

After a century of disuse and neglect The Hudson River and Lake Champlain have been rediscovered. As they were polluted and communities turned their backs to once vibrant waterfronts, so now this resource has been rediscovered, recognized as among the most treasured natural resources in United States. The famous Hudson River school of painters immortalized the beauty of the region, including the incomparable splendor of The Highlands, West Point, Adirondacks, and Green Mountains.

A young sailor in a 14-foot guide boat during a lull in an 1884 fall storm described the Lake Champlain as “glowing with red, yellow and green colors; while beyond, rising with their white peaks (the Adirondacks) covered with snow, the flood of sunlight...had the effect of making it appear to be in the heavens, above the clouds...a glimpse of Paradise itself.”

The North East Passage is documentary commemorating the 400th anniversary of these epochal events, chronicling the historic role the great eastern waterway played over the succeeding centuries. It will cover 1609 to the rebels’ stand at Valcour Island and the defeat of the British at the Battles of Saratoga during the War of Independence. It will will focus on settlement and commercial patterns along the corridor, interrupted by the War of 1812 and another epic navel battle on Lake Champlain. The subsequent peace was soon followed by the building of the Champlain Canal that ushered in the great steamboat era moving goods and passengers up the Hudson to Lake George on to Lake Champlain and up the Richelieu. It ends with the tricentennial celebrations of Hudson’s and Champlain’s discoveries, as the waterway’s glory gives way to the highways and the automobile.

Current Projects
Reshaping of the Middle East
Lowell Thomas
Northeast Passage: New York to Montreal
Ongoing Oral History Project