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 Original image courtesy of Clinton County Historians Office,  Modified version Copyright © 2011 America's Historic Lakes

  Following Fort Blunder...

Fort Montgomery
Rouses Point, New York

-Part III-
A million dollar fort that was never garrisoned

By James P. Millard

Fort Montgomery was designed for a wartime garrison of 800. It was never occupied by a garrison, although during the peak period of construction activity during the Civil War, several hundred workmen were at the site. A group of these workers were organized into a sort of civilian defense force.

Some might ask why the fort was ever built, particularly since it was never deemed important enough to garrison. To answer this question it is necessary understand the political climate of the time, and the basic premises upon which Third-System forts were built.

The fact that the fort was never garrisoned has often been used as proof that the fort was a useless debacle. Despite its prevalence, this argument is seriously flawed. The simple truth is that many Third-System forts were never garrisoned by design.1 They were to be maintained in peacetime by a small caretaker force, sometimes as small as a single man. The nation had a strong aversion to a large standing peacetime army, local militia forces were expected to play an active role in the defense of these forts. Fort Montgomery’s soldiers’ barracks were designed early on, in 1850, but these structures, which were to abut curtains I and II, were never built.2 There were plenty of troops at Plattsburgh Barracks that could easily move to Rouses Point in a hurry if needed.

It is also vital to look into the complicated, back and forth political climate between the United States and Great Britain. The Lake Champlain/Lake George transportation corridor had always been a key objective of military planners during times of conflict. While admittedly of lesser importance once better roads and eventually, railways, were built, it was difficult to conceive of the lake not playing a role in an invasion south (or north). The relationship between the United States and Great Britain/Canada remained uneasy after the signing of the Treaty of Ghent in 1814.

One crisis after another developed during the early years of the nineteenth century, culminating in a period of intense suspicion between the two nations during the American Civil War. Fort Montgomery was the result of these problems. Chief Engineer General Joseph G. Totten, designer of the original fort in 1816, took an interest in the works at Rouses Point and threw his support behind the project. The capable Col. C.E. Blunt was assigned oversight of the fortification. Some $900,000. was appropriated on February 20, 1862 for defenses along the Canadian border, resulting with Fort Montgomery being mostly completed by 1870.3

Early photo of Fort Montgomery. Of special note is the wharf extending from curtain II, just north of the SE bastion. Note the
mounted Rodman's on the barbette tier of the bastions. Courtesy Special Collections, Feinberg Library, Plattsburgh State University

For another ten years the fort lay idle while Congress and the War Department debated its usefulness. Masonry forts were considered by many military strategists as largely obsolete due to improvements in weaponry. Steel cannon, powerful new guns such as Rodman's and Parrot rifles could easily reduce the walls of a stone fort to rubble.4

Yet, the fort had its admirers. General William Tecumseh Sherman himself visited the fort in 1880. He was so impressed that he determined the army should move from Plattsburgh Barracks to Rouses Point. Rev. Taylor quotes Sherman: "I had no idea of the magnitude and importance of this work; this is the place for a garrison, instead of at Plattsburgh, and on my return to Washington I shall recommend a change of the post to this place"5

Sherman was true to his word. The Essex County Republican reported in 1882 that "It has been recommended by the General of the Army... that the barracks and military reservation at Plattsburgh... be abandoned... whereas the United States has at Rouses Point, a military reservation containing over five hundred acres, upon which has been expended... over one million dollars, and which is now wholly unoccupied."6

It didn't happen. Alarmed (and influential) Plattsburgh citizens rallied around Plattsburgh Barracks. The result was a dramatic expansion of the facility at Plattsburgh and almost total neglect of the works at Rouses Point.7

Despite the fact that the fort was never garrisoned, it was armed. Official War Department documents show there were 57 guns on site in 1872. Of these seven were 32-pounders, ten were 10" Rodmans, and there were forty 24-pounder flank howitzers.8 Interestingly enough, it appears the fort was most heavily armed around 1886 when a total of 74 guns were documented to have been present, most facing the north and northeast towards Canada. The 1886 document shows an additional eighteen guns had been mounted on the top, or barbette tier, section of the fort. These were 8" and 10" Rodman guns.9

Photos of Fort Montgomery
(Click on the thumbnails to see a larger image)

Above, left to right: Curtain II interior, showing the traverse circles, upon which the wheels that supported the gun chassis would roll. Photo courtesy, Clinton County Historical Assn. Center: NW exterior, taken from atop the cover face. Courtesy, Powertex, Inc. Right: A view of the north side of Fort Montgomery (Front IV) from the cover face. Courtesy, Clinton County Historical Association.

Above, left to right: Front II (south), Courtesy, Clinton County Historical Assn. Center: Close-up of the northwest bastion during low water. Courtesy, Clinton County Historical Association. Right: Early photo of the top of the gorge (west), showing an interesting view of the barbette tier. Courtesy of Ralph Gilpin.

The 32-pounders were smooth-bore, muzzle loading cannon, mounted on wooden and iron carriages. The 24-pounder flank howitzers were placed in the lower bastions as a defense against troops, and  the 8 and 10 inch Rodman guns were smooth-bore muzzle loading guns.

After 1886, the fort saw its cannon removed piece by piece. In 1900, 37 guns remained. That number declined to 20 in 1901. The last of the big guns were removed in 1909. Very few photos have surfaced of the Fort's armament. What photos have surfaced are featured in my books.

It can be accurately stated that Fort Montgomery was occupied for most of its useful life by no more than one man. Again, we refer to Rev. Taylor who wrote in 1892:

"Of all the old employees at Fort Montgomery but one remains connected with the work at present, who is Sergt. Wm McComb, of this place, the present Fort keeper. McComb on obtaining an honorable discharge in 1863 from service in the U.S. infantry, was employed at Fort Montgomery. In 1864, at the organization of the Fort Company [referred to above], he was appointed 1st Sergeant of the company, and made himself useful at the time in drilling the men in infantry tactics [these were construction workers]. The Sergt. has served since in the capacity of watchman and fortkeeper. That his faithfulness to duty and merits have been appreciated may be judged by his long retention in office." 10

Sergeant McComb remained the "fortkeeper" for some time. Around 1910 his duties were assumed by Sgt. Thomas Bourke, ret. U.S. 7th Cavalry. During our last visit to Ann Thurber's office at Powertex, Inc. (Fort Montgomery Estates and Powertex, Inc. have the same owners), we were thrilled when Ann produced a box of several glass plate negatives. They were in terrible condition, badly stained and one of them was broken. Yet, these negatives were very special. We were told the photos were taken by Sergeant Bourke himself. We have cleaned them up as well as we can. Thanks to our good friend Ann and Powertex, Inc. we are very pleased to reproduce them here for you. They are some of the oldest images known of Fort Montgomery.

Photos taken by Sgt. Thomas Bourke, last government caretaker of Fort Montgomery
(Click on the thumbnails to see a larger image)

 Left to right: Interior view towards southwest, mid 1900's. South view over moat. This photo shows a dramatic close-up of the bridge and drawbridge that met it from the barbette tier of Bastion D (northwest). View north along moat. View from NW cover face. Caretaker's cottage, the home of Sgt's. McComb and Bourke.
All above images, courtesy of Powertex, Inc.

Continued here...
Click here to go back to Part II  Click here to go back to Part I  Click here to continue to Part IV- Fort Montgomery and the "locals."

-Part IV-
Fort Montgomery and the "locals"

Note: Fort Montgomery is privately-owned.
The Fort grounds are posted and trespassing is strictly prohibited.
Please do not trespass on the ruins of the fort.


The author is grateful to the Clinton County Historical Association, the late Addie Shields, Powertex, Inc., Feinberg Library and the late Ralph Gilpin for permission to publish images from their collections.

1 John R. Weaver II, "A Legacy in Brick and Stone- American Coastal Defense Forts of the Third System, 1816-1867."  Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, Missoula, MT 2001 66,67.

2 Construction on the soldier’s barracks adjoining curtain I was started, but work stopped before much work was done. Interior photos show work had begun on the parade wall of curtain I., probably in 1861. NARA Records of the Chief of Engineers. Record Group 77. Sections and Elevations of Barracks-Curtain No I. (Rec’d from Col. Mason Oct. 22, 1850- later with Capt. Blunts ltr. Oct. 12, 1861 B8866) Drawer 7, sheets 22-24.

3  C. P. Stacey, The Myth of the Unguarded Frontier 1815-1871
The American Historical Review, Vol. 56, No. 1. (October, 1950), pp. 1-18.
<> (January 2003)

4 Robert E. Duchesneau III, A Brief History of American Seacoast Fortifications, 1830-1945. Original publication date unknown. <> (26 February 2003) and John R. Weaver II, "Re: Fort Montgomery, Rouses Point, New York", February 21, 2004. Personal email correspondence to author. (March 4, 2004)

5 Rev. Daniel T. Taylor, The Shores of Champlain. 1892. Reprinted 1979  Champlain, N.Y.: Moorsfield Press. 44 Courtesy of Ann Thurber.

6 Quoted in Ciborski, James R. Patriotic Fervor or Capitalist Pawn: The Expansion of Plattsburgh Barracks, 1892-1897. 1996. The Antiquarian, Clinton County Historical Association. Plattsburgh, NY. Edited by David Kendall Martin. 18 Courtesy of Addie Shields, Clinton County Historian.

7 Ibid. 18-20

8 Plan of Casemate Tier Fort Montgomery, Showing its present armament, February 1st 1872. NA Records of the Office of the Chief of Engineers, Fortifications Map File- Records Group 77. Courtesy of Powertex Inc., Rouses Point, NY.

9 Fort Montgomery, Rouses Point, outlet to Lake Champlain, New York: Jan 1886 (handwritten letter, author unknown, accompanied with typewritten transcript) NA Records of the Office of the Chief of Engineers, Fortifications Map File- Records Group 77, subgroup B, filed as DR7-0-3. Courtesy of Powertex, Inc., Rouses Point, NY.

10 Rev. Daniel T. Taylor, The Shores of Champlain. 1892. Reprinted 1979  Champlain, N.Y.: Moorsfield Press. Courtesy of Ann Thurber.

Last modified: 01/02/2016


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