A Fort Called Blunder

Ellie S. Thomas   

© Copyright 2012 by  Ellie S. Thomas


Photo of present day Ft. Montgomery.

It was called Fort Blunder...and not without reason! In fact, there was a time when far harsher names may have circulated. And folks were justified in thinking that John Warford and his wife should have had SOME idea where the boundary lines were when they sold 9 good acres to the government for a fort in the early 1800s. And when the Governor of New York State deeded over another 480 acres, HE should have made certain which parcel of land he was talking about. It seems incredible that $200,000 could be spent constructing a fort and that it would be completed for some time before anyone noticed that it was in the wrong country. Let's explore how this may have happened.

Colonial America had lived in chaos for most of one and a quarter centuries. Warfare had impoverished the settlers and filled the graveyards and in 1800, the British still maintained garrisons near the outlet of Lake Champlain and near North Hero, Vermont. Lake George and Lake Champlain belonged to New York State in the newly established United States and the eastern side of Lake Champlain belonged to the independent nation of Vermont.

Vast tracts of virgin forests should have provided enough elbow room for northern people to live in peace with one another but the innate land hunger, love of power and autonomy warred against the serene natural beauty of the area to end in absolute gridlock. The British didn't want to release their grip, the French were tenacious and aggressive, the Indians were opportunistic, and the independent Yankees could no more agree than any other greedy siblings.

Vermont and New York State were still fighting over the New Hampshire Grants, while New Hampshire and Massachusets continued to roil the waters whenever a settlement seemed likely. Despite the uneasy aftermath of continuous warfare, prosperous communities were springing up and many trades flourished, making the northeast a desirable region. The people were thrifty, independent, and aggressive and they fiercely resented the continued presence of the British on American soil. It was inevitable that war should revisit the region.

The War of 1812 had demonstrated, if nothing else, the ease with which troops could penetrate the heart of the continent once they had access to the waterways. Only about fifty percent of the population was in favor of this war, despite their fears of being invaded; however, the United States was caught between British and French maritime restrictions and drawn in, willy-nilly.

It was a time of great hardship for many people who didn't understand the political situation. Vermont insisted on her ambiguous status as a sovereign nation and treated, and did business with, the enemy...but many New Yorkers did also, and continued the supplies going northward into Canada...they also joined New Hampshire and Massachusetts in rebuffing any overt offers by the Vermonters towards joining the union because all three hoped the area would be partitioned, to their advantage. This stand-off could not continue much longer as seasoned commanders were arriving in Canada from Europe, released by Naploeon's downfall and the combination of newly arrived enemies, and the disunity within, could well turn the tide of events. Six times war had come down this track and citizens were distinctly uneasy. The American government got ready to thwart any further invasions.

The state of New York moved to acquire an area of 600 acres at the entrance to Lake Champlain and a Colonel Totten and his corp of engineers began to build a fort where Island Point narrows the inlet in the lake, just north of Rouses Point. It was begun in 1816, the 'year when there was no summer' and the ground was either impervious to pick and shovel, or a muddy wallow and the footings proved inadequate to hold the two-bastioned fort's stone and brick walls. It was difficult to make enough progress to surpass the steady erosion. Winterbottom says that 'Fort Montgomery is one mile north of Rouses Point and commands the Richelieu River with 164 guns' while another source refers to 'a gray mass of stone' and Silliman said it was a 'great stone castle.'.

Records in the National Archives in Washington show that land was deeded to the US government in successive years so, ultimately they owned lots 60-66 and 500 feet under water. In January of 1817 letters flew back and forth between Brigadier-General Joseph G. Swift and General Bernard, and Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph G. Totten, acknowledging the receipt of reports, with sketches of Rouses Point, N.Y. and containing other data. Colonel Totten sent Brigadier-General Swift a letter in October telling him all about the fortifications. There were problems with the construction which didn't seem to be going very well. Brigadier-General Swift wrote to the Acting Secretary of War, asking about contracts, but he was premature because surveyors busily tracing the 45th parallel discovered that Uncle Sam had built the fort on foreign soil. Not only built on foreign soil, but had located the fort in a most strategic location for her enemies!

Work ceased immediately and the commissioners tried to keep from the hostile civilians the fact that the $200,000 fort was in Canada but bad news will out and the stones were carried away piecemeal by irate people who derisively termed the place 'Fort Blunder.' It is not recorded who shouldered the blame for such a colossal mistake but the fort lay fallow until 1842 when after extensive meetings, the US granted England a portion of Maine for the fort and reservation via the Webster-Ashburton Treaty. Before long letters were traveling again and Captain Henry Brewerton wrote Colonel Totten in May of 1842, requesting authority to use material from the old fort for a new one. This time three-ton stones from nearby Isle LaMotte were used to construct five bastions, embrasures of wrought iron and cement and spiral staircases of cut stone. Called 'an enormous medieval edifice' by Vermont historian Frederick F. Van De Water, the walls rose 48 feet above the water and a 700 foot causeway connected the island to the mainland. Whenever there was talk of war, the building went briskly; when peace seemed imminent, construction lagged. The fort was not completed until after the NEXT war and at a cost of $600,000 dollars. Vice-President Wheeler of Malone, N.Y., tried to get Congress to appropriate $150,000 for the fort and grounds, now called Fort Montgomery after the gallant Irishman of Revolutionary fame; Richard Montgomery, 1738-1755, who fought under Wolfe, captured Montreal, and fell at Quebec; however, they met and postponed, met and postponed. It wasn't until 1870 that the fort was finally garrisoned...by an ordinance sergeant and a watchman, who maintained their watch through 1908, when the place was finally abandoned.

Little remains of the old landmark today. It was sold at public auction in 1926 and has been the scene of picnics and Boy Scout camp outs, but the fort and environs are now in the hands of developers who hope to develop estates and an industrial park, leaving the fort itself, to be sold, or preserved.

The current owner, Victor Podd, tried to get the state to take it as a gift simply to get it restored and dedicated to public use but the prevalence of old forts and historical sites along Lake Champlain makes one more rather commonplace. It is too bad that it cannot be saved both as a historical landmark and as a fitting testimonial to the brave soldier for whom it was ultimately named.

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