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New York historic forts (Niagara, Ontario, Ticonderoga, etc.)

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Did You Know … ?

  • Fort Ontario was used as a Holocaust refugee center (1944-1946), the only one in the U.S.
  • Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold led America’s first Revolutionary War victory (1775), capturing Fort Ticonderoga.
  • The French capture of Fort William Henry (1757) is the central historical event in “The Last of the Mohicans.”
  • Until 1763, French Canada extended well into New York state encompassing Fort Ticonderoga.
  • A British Army doctor wrote “Yankee Doodle” while staying at Fort Crailo in Rensselaer (1758).

New York, the war zone

New York state was once an on-again, off-again war zone; that was more than 200 years ago. During the French and Indian War, Britain won control of France’s New World Empire, which included a huge chunk of New York. One-third of the Revolutionary War’s battles were fought in New York, and the fight with Britain returned to New York during the War of 1812.

New York’s rivers and Great Lakes access were key strategic prizes, which is why there were so many forts in those places, some mere ruins today, some preserved or reconstructed. Several are state historic sites and others privately operated.

Visitors interested in this history seek out the forts but their itineraries are enhanced with visits to related museums, homes of patriots and the state’s first Senate building in Kingston.

The forts themselves offer numerous attractions for history buffs, families and casual observers, including museums, ranger-led strolls, living history events, munitions and other demonstrations, full-blown reenactments and even ghosts tours. Strategically positioned forts generally offer great views, too.

The most-visited forts include:

  • Crown Point Historic Site, on Lake Champlain, encompassing the ruins of two 18th century forts and a museum. This site was in play during the French and Indian and Revolutionary wars.
  • Fort Ontario State Historic Site, on the Oswego River near Rochester, overlooking Lake Ontario. The star-shaped structure, built in the 1840s, is the fourth fort on the site; its predecessors saw action and lots of destruction in all three above-mentioned wars.
  • Fort Ticonderoga, a restored fort at the south end of Lake Champlain. This strategic outpost changed hands a few times in the French and Indian and the Revolutionary wars.
  • Fort William Henry Museum, at the south end of Lake George. The French destroyed this short-lived fort during the French and Indian War, and private interests reconstructed it after World War II.
  • Old Fort Niagara State Historic Site, at the mouth of the Niagara River overlooking Lake Ontario and just north of Niagara Falls, built by the French and boasting original 18th century buildings. Controlling access to the Great Lakes, it also saw action in all three cited wars.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Find events that let you participate. In one recent example, guests were invited to join reenactors as they made crucial decisions before evacuating Fort Ticonderoga. What needs to be carried away? What must be destroyed so enemy cannot get it?
  • Attend a football game at West Point.
  • Dive for your sightseeing at Lake George’s Submerged Heritage Preserves — the Sunken Fleet of 1758 and Land Tortoise, a 1758 Floating Gun Battery. The Land Tortoise site is a deep, cold-water dive (105 to 107 feet) and calls for advanced diving skills.
  • Join a VIP tour at Fort Ticonderoga that lets you handle and examine 18th century weapons with the supervision of the fort’s staff. Learn how artisans in Europe and America made the weapons that remade history.
  • Or choose the tour that makes you a solder for an evening. Participants form a platoon, introduced to the rigors of a typical day in the life of soldiers posted at Fort Ticonderoga in 1775 at the start of the Revolutionary War.
  • Look for ghosts. Fort Ontario offers both cemetery and ghost tours (not at the same time). At Fort William Henry, visitors see equipment used by investigators searching for paranormal activity and hear old ghost stories — including the guide’s personal experiences!

Things to do for Centrics

  • Attend a reenacted siege or battle at one of the forts. Choices may include a redo of the fall of Fort Ticonderoga in 1777 or the annual French and Indian War reenactment at Old Fort Niagara.
  • Forts, such as Fort Montgomery, Fort Ontario and Fort Stanwix, demonstrate camp life in frequent living history events, which may encompass historic weapons demonstrations, games and daily activities. Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Historic Site demonstrates conditions during the War of 1812.
  • Cycle on Governors Island, accessible seasonally from New York’s Manhattan on a free ferry. Or, cycle the grounds of Crown Point State Historic Site, overlooking Lake Champlain. In winter, bring the snowshoes or Nordic skis.
  • Visit the three Hudson River Valley sites that were at various times General George Washington’s headquarters; they were two private homes and West Point. Also, see Fraunces Tavern Museum in lower Manhattan, where revolutionaries congregated and Washington bid farewell to his officers.
  • Look for the event at Fort Ticonderoga, or elsewhere, that lets you try your hand at some of the crafts necessary to preparing the Continental Army for battle.
  • More than 180 bird species have been observed at the Crown Point Bird Conservation Area within the Crown Point State Historic Site. Prepare for this; bring the binoculars.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Learn what happened at one or more of these sites by joining ranger-led walks over the grounds and through the forts or what remains of them.
  • Combine the history with a photography day, shooting forts that can be seen on their hilltop sites and/or costumed reenactors in action.
  • Several forts sit on grounds suitable for picnics. Take advantage, especially when the setting dramatically overlooks a Great Lake or a river.
  • For the kids, become a junior ranger at Fort Stanwix. Or join the “King’s Army” at Fort William Henry.
  • Look for events that touch on or center on the roles of women and family at the forts. A typical example would be a recent Fort Stanwix encampment weekend where visitors could discover how women kept residents clothed. Fort William Henry Museum events cover the role of women in feeding as well as clothing residents. A recent Fort Ticonderoga weekend also considered the child’s life in the 1770s fort.
  • Take a sunset cruise on Lake Champlain around Ticonderoga Peninsula, available at the fort on Wednesdays July and August.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the New York State Division of Tourism at www.iloveny.com