Like a blue diamond, which shimmers and shakes with the invisible hands of the wind, Lake George, some 200 miles north of Manhattan, is nestled in a bed of green crushed velvet officially designated the Adirondack Mountains. As a destination, it can be considered a jewel.
One of eleven New York State tourist regions-including Long Island, New York City, the Hudson Valley, the Catskill Mountains, the Capital District, Central-Leatherstocking, the Thousand Islands, the Finger Lakes, Greater Niagara, and Chautauqua-Allegheny-the Adirondacks themselves are part of the Great Cambrian Shield. Composed of Precambrian igneous and metamorphic rock that was thrust upward some ten million years ago, it was once the hunting grounds of the Iroquois and Algonquin Native Americans.
In order to protect its wildlife and preclude depleting forestation, however, the State of New York created the six million acre Adirondack Park-2.6 of which are federally owned and 3.4 of which are privately owned-in 1892, and two years later the Adirondack Forest Preserve was established, a constitutionally protected Forever Wild Area for the purpose of “preserving (its) exceptional scenic, recreational, and ecological value.”
Measuring 9,375 square miles, it is today a refuge of vast, silent forests, 46 rugged, green-carpeted peaks-of which 5,343-foot Mount Marcy is both the highest in the park and in all of New York State-3,000 gleaming lakes, and 30,000 miles of rushing rivers and streams. Containing the headwaters of the Hudson River, Lake Champlain, the Black River, the St. Lawrence River, and the Mohawk River, it offers abundant, nature-based activities, from hunting, fishing, skiing, hiking, and camping to mountain biking, and attracts more than ten million annual visitors. It is the largest park preserve in the United States.
“In the mid-1800s, the Adirondacks were an undiscovered natural treasure,” according to the “Visit the Lake George Area in New York’s Adirondacks” guide (p. 1). “Hidden peaks with mirror surfaces are teamed with native rainbow trout. White-tailed deer roamed the shores of silent waterways. Towering mountains stocked with ridgelines climaxed at stunning panoramas of the wooded landscape below. Boundless forests of sugar maples and American beech trees stretched as far as the eye could see, painting the autumn hills and valleys a medley of deep oranges and flaming reds. Lake George was the glistening jewel in the treasure chest that is the Adirondacks.”
LAKE GEORGE VILLAGE
Having been designated by three names, Lake George began as “Andia-ta-roc-te,” so-called by Native Americans; progressed to “Lac du Saint Sacrement,” or “Lake of the Blessed Sacrament,” a title bestowed by Father Isaac Jogues, the first white main to have seen it in 1646; and ended with the current “Lake George.”
Although the area’s pristine nature would suggest serenity, its early history was marked by conflict, as evidenced by the three forts, including Gage, George, and William Henry, that once rose from the shores and were integral to the French and Indian War.
Revolutionary War activity also played out there. In May of 1775, Ethan Allen and 83 of his Green Mountain Boys captured Fort Ticonderoga, 32 miles to the north, without releasing a single bullet from their muskets, capturing it from the British. Lake George served as a strategic waterway during the war for the next eight years.
During the winter of 1775 to 1776, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Knox transported artillery from Bolton to Fort Ticonderoga via oxen for ultimate use by George Washington in defense of the British in Boston.
The following year, British General Burgoyne traveled southward from Lake Champlain and then through Lake George with his entourage and supplies, culminating in defeat in Saratoga. Other historically significant figures also frequented the area: in April of 1776. Benjamin Franklin and Philip Schuyler passed through Bolton’s waters while journeying northward to the military situation in Canada, and seven years later General George Washington visited the head of the lake during his own post-Revolution inspection. Thomas Jefferson, exploring the area in 1791, paused to express its pristine quality when he wrote that the lake was “the most beautiful water I ever saw” in a letter to his daughter.
Formed after combining Queensbury, Bolton, and Thurman on August 2, 1810, the 32-mile Lake George is Warren County’s smallest town.
While the early-1800s were characterized by lumbering, as once evidenced by the proliferation of sawmills, its beauty, coupled with the lake’s steamboats, began attracting tourists, and wealth, like a physical language, expressed itself through the increasing number of homes and mansions rising from the eastern shore.
By mid-century, stores, schools, restaurants, and court houses assembled into a cohesive town, and access via the New York State Thruway (I-87) became the final infrastructural aspect that ensured its vacation destination transformation, particularly during the summer months.
Today, Lake George Village, with its single main artery locally called “Canada Street” (Route 9) and accessibility via Thruway exits 21, 22, and 23, serves as the southern base for Lake George residents and tourists alike with its services-shops, ice cream parlors, restaurants, banks, libraries, and an historical association. For young travelers, there are arcades, fun parks, haunted houses, and the House of Frankenstein Wax Museum.
LAKE GEORGE ACCOMMODATION
Accommodation in Lake George takes many forms, from the known, such as the Best Western, the Holiday Inn, the Quality Inn, the Hampton Inn, and a significantly sized Courtyard by Marriott, to the long-established properties comprising Motel Row at the north end of Canada Street. Since it divides into Routes 9L and 9N, the latter, because it hugs the lake, continues to feature cabins, cottages, and complexes for a considerable distance as it winds its way to Bolton.
Of particular significance is the Fort William Henry Hotel and Conference Center on the lake’s southern basin. Historical staple of the area whose roots were planted more than a century and a half ago, and now in its third rendition guise, it had originally been propped on a bluff overlooking the southernmost portion of the then-named Village of Caldwell. To its basic, three-story structure, which stretched 115 feet on either side and protruded 235 feet to the lake, were added two additional floors with a tower on either side, almost tripling its capacity from 350 to 900 guests. Turn-of-the-century modernization took the form of private bathrooms.
Although a June 24, 1909 fire consumed the property, it once again rose from the ashes two years later when new owner Delaware and Hudson Railroad opened a smaller, but just as lavish facility, accommodating 150 on three floors. Externally it sported white stucco and red tile roofs.
1912 marked the first year that it remained open throughout the winter and toward that end activity centered on skiing, skating, and sledding. Yet the Great Depression, not conflagration, proved its enemy a second time and the railroad divested itself of it.
The Fort William Henry Corporation, founded in 1952 to resurrect the property and construct a replica of the original one, along with changing tourist profiles, obviated its purpose by 1969, prompting its demolition and leaving, at least on a temporary basis, the Fort William Henry Motor Inn.
Yet history, as has been proven on countless occasions, often repeats itself and the dynamic became reality here. Employing the original 1911 footprint and incorporating many of its design features, a new five-story, all-suite hotel, attracting the higher revenue business sector, was constructed, opening on July 18, 2004. Located on 18 acres and offering luxury accommodations in the main hotel, medium-range rooms in its Premium East Wing, and budget ones in its Standard West one, it offers numerous facilities: a fireplace and gift shop-equipped lobby, the White Lion Restaurant for breakfast, the Tankard Tavern, and the Lookout Café, and close proximity to attracts such as the Fort William Henry Museum, Battlefield Park, and the Lake George Steamboat Company.
LAKE GEORGE VILLAGE ATTRACTIONS
Because of the village’s compact nature, all of its attractions, which are historically-based, are within walking distance of one another.
Lake George Visitor Center:
Located on the corner of Canada Street and Beach Road, the Lake George Visitor Center offers a supply of brochures and maps, and an area diorama. Staffed, it affords tourists an opportunity to speak with representatives to facilitate trip planning and provide recommendations.
Lake George Historical Association and Museum:
Located on the corner of Canada and Amherst Streets in Lake George Village, the Lake George Historical Association and Museum is housed in the three-floor, 1845 Warren County Court House and its first act of preservation was to save, from demolition, its very housing.
“The museum is a popular attraction and provides a means of discovery to the rich past of this historical region,” it advises.
Of its many exhibits, the basement located jail cells, dating from the court house’s 1845 construction, area shipwrecks, and photographs of earlier, lake-plying steamboats are significant.
Fort William Henry Museum:
Both historically significant and symbolic is the red, log-formed Fort William Henry Museum, which, in original form, played a role in the French and Indian War. The conflict, an extension of the Seven Years War between France and England, was ultimately transferred to North American soil.
Wrestling for land dominance, the English built Fort Edward, considered “The Great Carrying Place” and the third-largest settlement after those in Philadelphia and New York, while the French planted their own roots north of the St. Lawrence River in areas that would later become the states of Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Yet sparks, when ignited between two sides, have a way of closing the distance between them, and this occurred when the French commenced construction of Fort Carillon on the southern tip of Lake Champlain in what would eventually become New York State. The physics principle of “every action has an equal and opposite reaction” is perhaps more applicable here, because the British “reacted” with a fortification of their own-specifically, Fort William Henry at the southern tip of the still-designated Lac du Saint Sacrement, so that they could protect their own colonies. As a staging point against French entrenchments, it additionally served as protection of the inland waters between New York and Montreal.
The fort itself, ordered by Major General William Johnson and tasked to his chief engineer, Captain William Eyre, was designed in the Vauban style-that is, rectangularly configured with corner bastions and 30-foot curtain walls initially consisting of log facings and earthen fillings. It was externally surrounded by three dry moats and a fourth side that sloped toward the lake. Capacity was between 400 and 500.
Christened “Fort William Henry” to honor the two royal grandsons of King George II, it was intended to protect British interests to the south and serve as a military launching point against the French and their Native American allies to the north.
Enemy siege, under General Marquis de Montcalm and comprised of 3,000 French regulars, 3,000 militia, and 2,000 Native Americans, occurred on August 3, 1757, as their progressively tightening lines began to choke the fort. Numerically disadvantaged, Lieutenant Colonel George Monro, its commander, sent couriers to Fort Edward to request reinforcements, but Major General Daniel Webb considered the route too dangerous for his soldiers and “kept them home.”
Consistent hammering, artillery depletion, and structural damage predictably forced Monro to surrender six days later, yet the Articles of Capitulation, the title of Montcalm’s surrender terms, were both humane and generous: the British troops were permitted to retain all their possessions and weapons, sans ammunition; the garrison could leave with one cannon; and they agreed that attacks against the French would be suspended for an 18-month interval. The French regulars marched the British to Fort Edward the following day.
But ironically, the “enemy” proved, in many ways, to be the silent, uncompensated third party Native Americans, who gained nothing from their participation and hence took matters into their own hands.
Anger, expressing itself through the shooting, scalping, and bludgeoning of the wounded and sick who had been left behind, culminated in the snatch of guns, clothing, and implements, and the Fort Edward marching column was attacked by marauding Indians. Because of both language and customs barriers between Montcalm and his local allies, he was unable to thwart their efforts or adequately retaliate.
Nevertheless, he ordered Fort William Henry to be burned to the ground on August 11.
Occupying its original footprint, a replica, based upon the original British plans, was built in 1955, or 198 years after the actual fortification was destroyed by flame. Today, the visitor can catch a glimpse into British solider life in the area through its barracks and bastions, casemates, emergency hospital, guard room, sutlery, Monro’s quarters, 18th-century food and frontier exhibits, powder magazines, and tailor shops. A military crypt, an 18-pound cannon recovered from the lake, and the original well from 1756 are located in the courtyard.
“Hear the report of musket fire and the roar of the cannon as you step back in time to 1757 at Fort William Henry,” the museum proclaims. “Listen to stories and see artifacts from the daily life of this British outpost in the wilderness, defending the colonies during the French and Indian War.”
Across the fort and fronting the lake is a life-size wooden sculpture made by Master Wood Carver Paul Stark of Lieutenant Colonel Robert Rogers in a canoe, highlighting the area’s history.
Located at the southern end of Lake George, 35-acre Battlefield Park marks the area where engagements between Algonquin and Iroquois tribes and American Colonists and British soldiers occurred. Aside from the remnants of Fort George, there are three significant statues.
In the first, dedicated to the region’s Native Americans, a North American is depicted dipping his hand into a pool of water. In the second, King Hendrick, a Mohawk chief, demonstrates the danger of dividing his forces to General William Johnson. And in the third, Father Isaac Jogues represents his attempt to spread Christianity to the Huron Indians during the 1630s and 1640s.
Delaware and Hudson Railway Station:
Although now only housing the Steamboat Gift Shop, the Delaware and Hudson Railway Station, located across from the Lake George Steamboat Company and constructed between 1909 and 1911 in the Revival style with a stucco frame, a stressed brick tower, and a terra cotta upper section, is symbolic of the role it once played in the area.
Transportation between New York City and Montreal had initially consisted of waterway travel-in this case, those waterways consisted of the Hudson River, Lake George, and Lake Champlain-yet a more direct route, resulting in shorter travel times, was attainable with land-based methods, specifically track-plying trains.
While it had its origins in the Saratoga-Fort Edward Rail Road chartered in 1832, the line, which never materialized, was replaced by the Saratoga and Washington Rail Road Company that was formed 16 years later and transported passengers between Saratoga Springs and Whitehall. Freight was carried as of 1851.
After ownership changes, resulting in the Saratoga-Whitehall Railroad Company in 1855 and the Rennselaer-Saratoga Railroad in 1856, the Glens Falls Railroad line opened in 1869 and was extended to Lake George in 1882. When the Delaware and Hudson assumed control, it made intermodal transportation possible by connecting with the Lake George Steamboat Company’s vessels for continued carriage to Ticonderoga.
The railroad station, as testament to it today, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2013.
Lake George, considered the Queen of American Lakes, is the glittering centerpiece of the area.
Formed between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago, it is 32 miles long, three miles wide, 200 feet deep, 320 feet above sea level, has 108 miles of shoreline, occupies a 233-square-mile area, has 183 islands, and its surrounded by 2,665-foot Black Mountain, its highest peak. Beyond Bolton Landing, it divides into Northwest Bay and the Narrows.
Three southern-end engagements between British and French forces in the Battle of Lake George resulted in the first major victory of the former over the latter. Yet the blood of yesterday’s wars was transformed into the beauty of today’s topography.
“Lake George is without comparison the most beautiful water I ever saw,” Thomas Jefferson once wrote. “Formed by a contour of mountains into a basin 35 miles long and from two to four miles broad, finely interspersed with islands, its water limpid as crystal, and the mountainsides covered with rich groves of silver fir, white pine, aspen, and paper birch down to the water; here and there precipices of rock to checker the scene and save it from monotony. An abundance of speckled trout, salmon trout, bass, and other fish with which it is stored have added to our amusements the sport of taking them.”
Aside from its recreational activities, which encompass swimming, fishing, and parasailing, there are several cruises that cover a portion, or all of, the lake.
“Lake George is beautiful to behold from any vantage point, but to realize her true majesty in all its forms, there’s nothing like gliding along the shimmering surface of this ‘Queen of American lakes,'” advises Paul Tackett in his article “Giants of the Lake” (“Visit the Lake George Area in New York’s Adirondacks,” Warren County Tourism Department, p. 24). “… Any one of several spectacular cruise ships stands ready to escort passengers through the Lake George experience of a lifetime.”
“Spend an hour or enjoy an unforgettable day aboard one of the magnificent vessels that ply the crystal clear waters of Lake George… ,” he continues (ibid, p. 24). “The captain discusses the colorful history of Lake George while guests gaze upon the same shoreline and forested mountains that inspired George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and James Fennimore Cooper.”
Two companies offer a variety of excursions and both are located at the southern end on Beach Road.
Lake George Shoreline Cruises, the first, has two boats in its fleet: The 115-foot, tri-deck, 400-passenger “Adirondac,” constructed in 2004 and modeled after the late-19th century touring ships; and the 85-foot, dual-deck, 150-passenger “Horicon,” which was built almost exclusively of mahogany, teak, and yellow pine in 1988.
The company has its own Shoreline Restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating overlooking the lake.
The second cruise concern, the Lake George Steamboat Company, was instrumental in the area’s transportation history and hails from more than two centuries ago.
Because of the success of steamboat services on northerly neighboring Lake Champlain, the Lake George Steam Boat Company planted its own aquatic roots on April 15, 1817 after the New York State Legislature approved commercial shipping on it.
The canal boat-resembling “James Caldwell,” powered by a third-hand engine and sporting two long boilers and a brick smokestack, constituted its first vessel, which commenced service that year, and required a full day to traverse the lake’s length. But the inauspicious beginning to the service had a mysterious ending: it was inexplicably consumed by flame four years later while moored at his berth.
It was quickly succeeded by three other boats: the 100-foot-long, six-mph “Mountaineer” in 1824, a side-wheeler; the 140-foot-long, 13-mph “William Caldwell” in 1838; and the 145-foot-long, 13-mph “John Jay” in 1850. In 1857, the 400-passenger, wood-burning “Minne-Ha-Ha” joined the fleet.
As subsequent owner, for 72 years between 1871 and 1943, of the Lake George Steam Boat Company, the Delaware and Hudson Railway built some of the finest side-wheeler steam vessels used in its track-and-water intermodal transportation system, particularly the 223-foot, 20-mph “Sagamore” and the 230-foot, 21-mph “Horicon II.”
A post-World War II ownership change to Captain Wilbur Dow in November of 1945 preceded the company’s resurrection, which entailed the addition of the “Mohican” two years later, the “Ticonderoga” in 1950, and the construction of the present Steel Pier on Beach Road.
Three boats constitute its fleet today.
The “Lac du Saint Sacrement,” its flagship, was specifically designed for large groups and conventions. Stretching 189.6 feet and accommodating 1,149 on four decks, it was christened on June 15, 1989 and has a top, 18-mph speed.
The “Minne-Ha-Ha,” whose name was given to the wife of Hiawatha and means “laughing waters,” is one of the last steam-powered paddle wheelers and resembles the Mississippi River boats. Lengthened in 1998, it now stretches 137 feet and carries 500 passengers on three decks.
The “Mohican,” the third vessel in the fleet, was built in 1908 and is thus the oldest continuously operating tour boat in the country, listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Converted from steam to diesel in 1946, it is 117 feet long, accommodates 350 on three decks, and cruises at 15 mph.
Both the Lake George Shoreline Cruises and the Lake George Steamboat Company operate a variety of cruises, from the lakefront to Paradise Bay, Islands of the Narrows, and full-length ones to Ticonderoga, with an equal number of dining options: self-purchase snack bar and grill items, afternoon lunch and evening dinner cruises with entertainment, St. Louis rib Mondays, Taco Tuesdays, mac ‘n cheese Wednesdays, Pizza Thursdays, Fiesta Fridays, and Prime Rib Sundays.
“For that one-of-a-kind cruise adventure,” concludes Tackett (ibid, p. 25), “step aboard any one of these gleaming white marvels and kick back awhile. As the sounds of Lake George Village fade, the ship becomes a world unto itself: the playful breeze rolls over the passengers as the sun warms them, body and soul.”
Tackett, Paul. “Giants of the Lake.” “Visit the Lake George Area in New York’s Adirondacks.” Warren County Tourism Department, 2019.