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VALCOUR ISLAND
Scene of the Battle of Lake Champlain


By James P. Millard

Click on the thumbnail for a full size early Twentieth-Century map of Valcour Island. Just south of the city of Plattsburgh New York, below (as the crow flies) Crab Island and Cumberland Head, lies the beautiful and historic island of Valcour. One of the largest islands in the lake (The "Heros" and Isle la Motte of Vermont are larger), the entire island has been preserved by the State of New York as a park.

Click here to see a larger photo of Valcour Island from Bluff PointValcour Island is without doubt one of the more famous locations on the historic lakes. Rich in history and stunning in beauty, this large island with its many fine bays and anchorages has long been a popular destination for recreational boaters. Valcour is about 2 miles long and approximately a mile at its widest point and is situated close to the New York shore. The shore of the island is a combination of rocky, craggy outcroppings and fine sandy beaches. Several protected bays provide some of the most popular anchorages for sailors on the lake.

Above, left: This small protected bay is on the west side of Valcour Island just north of the Bluff Point Lighthouse.
Right: Valcour Island from Bluff Point. Click on the thumbnails to see a large image.

A place rich in history

The first written reference to the island is by Samuel de Champlain in his journal. The island witnessed much during the long period of conflict between England and France, yet mentions of the isle in the historical record are few. We can be reasonably sure that French soldiers, 'habitants', and their native allies occasionally stopped off at the island on their way to and from expeditions against their Mohawk and British enemies to the south. Later, the Marquis de Montcalm passed the island many times, often accompanied by large numbers of troops to attack the English forts and garrison Forts St. Frédéric and Carillon. Likewise, Roger's Rangers led numerous raids north past the island during the awful conflict we now know as the French and Indian War. Sir Jeffrey Amherst played a significant role in ending that conflict (and driving the French from the valley for good) when he sailed north with his mighty forces in 1759. His fleet forced the French to scuttle what remained of their navy on the lake just north of here at a place today called Cliff Haven.

Click the thumbnail to see an aerial view of Valcour Island and the western shore.

The island played its most significant role during the American Revolution. It was here, in the narrow channel between the island and the New York shore that Benedict Arnold chose to anchor his fleet and await a large British force under Sir Guy Carleton. It was here, on the morning of October 11, 1776 that the pivotal Battle of  Valcour began. When dusk settled on the rocky shore that evening, dozens had been killed, many more wounded, and the American fleet had been severely pounded at the hands of a far superior antagonist.

The following year, General John Burgoyne sailed south past the island with an expeditionary force some 10,000 strong. Their destination was Albany; they met their fate at a place called Saratoga.

Once the colonists had won their independence from Great Britain, the waterway reverted briefly to primarily being a transportation and communication thoroughfare for travelers and settlers. Some of these early pioneers settled on Valcour Island. During the late 1700's through the end of the next century dozens of individuals owned some or all of the thousand acre island.

Click here to see a map of the naval battle at Cumberland Bay, September 11, 1814.Warships again plied the waters of Lake Champlain between 1812 and 1814. Again also, a major battle took place just north of the island in the protected reaches of Cumberland Bay. The Battle of Plattsburgh was pivotal in bringing this 'second war of independence' to a successful conclusion for the new nation. Thomas Macdonough towed what was left of the British fleet past the island to rest 'in ordinary' at Skenesborough; today's Whitehall, New York.

During the 1870's a controversial group known as the 'Dawn Valcour Agricultural and Horticultural Association' established a commune on the island. Known primarily for espousing 'free love', the group aroused the suspicion and ire of local residents. That antagonism, together with the shady business practices of the island's owner, led to the demise of the experiment only a year later. The 'Dawn Valcour Society' as they were commonly known, remains a popular topic of interest well over a century later.1

The Bluff Point Lighthouse at Valcour Island. This stunning photo was contributed by Claudia Hornby of Plattsburgh, NY. Click on the image to see a large-size photo.The beautiful Bluff Point Lighthouse was constructed on the island in 1874. For some 57 years the lighthouse was maintained by a resident keeper and his family. In 1929 a steel tower was built just to the south of the structure, the light was moved to the top of this steel beacon where it remains today. Plans are in the works to have the US Coast Guard restore the light to the lighthouse itself in 2004. Today, the lighthouse is accessible; and by special arrangement with the Clinton County Historical Association, visitors may receive a guided tour.
Bluff Point Lighthouse, Valcour Island
Photo courtesy of Claudia Hornby *

(click on the image to see a full-size photo)

All through the first part of the 20th Century the island remained in private hands. At least one private camp was established on the island; Camp Penn for boys.

Artifact collecting

Artifact collecting was always popular in the waters around the island. Today, most recognize that removing archaeological objects from historic sites is ill-advised if not illegal. It certainly is illegal to remove artifacts from Valcour Bay today without a permit. In the past, however, sport and recreational divers removed many priceless artifacts from the underwater battlefield. Larger, more organized private efforts were conducted. Some of these proved disastrous- the removal of the wreck of the Royal Savage is an example. The Savage was located in shallow water off the southwestern point of the island, ripe for the picking. Serious efforts to salvage materials from the Royal Savage began in the 1870's and continued into the 1930's when Lorenzo Hagglund brought the hulk of the ship onto the shore. Unfortunately, wooden vessels require immediate conservation; the wreck has not fared well, what little remains of the wreck is now stored in Pennsylvania.

Another major effort by Hagglund in 1935 produced happier results. The gunboat Philadelphia was raised intact from much deeper water. For 25 years Hagglund displayed the vessel at various locations around the lake, he even offered the priceless artifact to state and local authorities; there were no takers. Recognizing what he had, Colonel Hagglund remained undaunted, he eventually offered the ship to the Smithsonian. In 1961 the museum took title to the vessel, it underwent significant, albeit quite tardy, scientific conservation efforts and became a centerpiece of the museum's American History exhibits in Washington, DC.

Valcour Island today

Click here to see a photo of Frank Pabst's tour boat Juniper taken from the tower of the Bluff Point LighthouseFor many years, local entrepreneur Captain Frank Pabst operated a tour boat in Cumberland and Valcour Bays. Thousands of visitors to the north country were enlightened about the rich history of the region by Pabst, who was known for his entertaining narratives. Pabst stopped running the M/V Juniper a few years ago; recently another tour boat operator has begun operations out of Plattsburgh.

Click here to see a photo of a cannon from the Battle of Valcour resting on the floor of Valcour Bay prior to its being raised for conservation by the Valcour Bay Research ProjectResearch continues at the underwater battlefield today under the auspices of the Valcour Bay Research Project. This project, a joint effort led by Art Cohn of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum and Ed Scollon, a New York State Trooper and professional diver, brings experts in nautical and underwater archaeology together with volunteers and local sport divers. Much has been accomplished, many more exciting discoveries lie ahead. America's Historic Lakes is honored to be the official home of the Valcour Bay Research Project on the web. You can follow the progress of the archaeological survey by visiting the links listed below.

Today the island itself is within New York's Adirondack Park. It is wholly owned by the State of New York and the entire island is maintained as a park. There are some 7 miles of trails on the densely wooded island and camping is allowed by permit only. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and Dept. of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation are currently in the process of creating a new Unit Management Plan for the State-owned islands, including Valcour. It remains to be seen what, if any changes will result. Considering the popularity of this scenic and historic place significant changes are unlikely.

Related pages on the Site...

 

The Valcour Bay Research Project on the Web
Follow the progress of an actual underwater archeological survey in beautiful and historic Valcour Bay!

The Bluff Point Lighthouse, Valcour Island

The Battle of Lake Champlain (Introduction)

The Battle of Valcour on Lake Champlain

Orders of Battle- the forces involved

Arnold's Bay- Panton, Vermont

A tale of two ships: The Continental Gunboat Philadelphia

Lieut. James Hadden's Account of the Battle of Lake Champlain:
An eyewitness account of the extraordinary events on Lake Champlain between October 11-13, 1776

Sources/Notes:

1 Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, "Historical and Archaeological Narrative of New York Islands in Lake Champlain" Prepared by Sara R. Brigadier, Adam I. Kane under the direction of Arthur B. Cohn (New York State Department of Environmental Conservation 2003) 86-89

**America's Historic Lakes would like to acknowledge its grateful appreciation to Roger and Linda Harwood, of Plattsburgh, New York for their assistance in the preparation of this page. We also want to express our appreciation to Claudia Hornby  for the Bluff Point Lighthouse photo and Doug and Mark Harwood for the beautiful aerial photographs.

 

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