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May 2024
2min read

A French officer lay in his blankets on the site of the wilderness fort he had been sent to build, listening to the soft wind in the trees and water rushing down the rapids be- tween Lakes George and Champlain. It reminded him of bells and he asked and got permission to name the new post Fort Carillon. In American history it carries a more rolling, martial title: Ticonderoga.

The spot, whose Indian name means “Place between Big Waters,” was recognized as one of the most strategic positions between New France and the British colonies long before anything was ever built there. Who held the rocky promontory controlled the easiest and most direct route between the Hudson and St. Lawrence river valleys.

At the outbreak of the French and Indian War, the French moved to secure it. Beginning in the fall of 1755 and continuing into 1758, the fort, with as many as two thousand men on the job, was rushed nearly to completion before the British marched against it.

A standard square with earth-filled stone walls and pointed bastions at the corners, the fort had, in addition, a low outer wall protecting the south side facing Lake Champlain. Two triangular outworks called “demilunes” guarded the north and west faces. (Incidentally, the difference between a demilune and the ravelins at St. Augustine and Niagara is strictly technical. If the outwork is outside the ditch surrounding the curtain walls, it’s a ravelin; if inside, it’s a demilune.)

The enclosure had stone barracks for a four-hundredman garrison, but during campaigning season an additional fifteen thousand could be encamped on level ground between the fort and the lake. The walls had embrasures for ninety cannons.

The first attempt to take Fort Carillon, a bungled 1758 assault, was a disaster for the British, but the following year a more careful approach succeeded. A small French delaying garrison held on until the British got within six hundred yards of the walls, then blew up the magazine and fled. The British repaired the damage and changed the name from the softer Carillon to Ticonderoga.

One night in 1775, at the outbreak of the American Revolution, Ethan Alien and his Green Mountain Boys surprised and captured the fort without firing a shot. Among the supplies scooped up were more than a hundred artillery pieces of various sizes, sixty of which Henry Knox later hauled down the Hudson and over the Berkshire Mountains in midwinter to use in the siege of Boston.

Recaptured by John Burgoyne two years later, the fort repulsed another American attempt to retake it but was evacuated as part of the Burgoyne surrender agreement. The fort was never used again. In a life of slightly more than twenty-five years, Ticonderoga changed hands four times.

After the Revolution the site was given by the state of New York to Columbia and Union colleges. In the early 1800s it was acquired by William F. Pell, a New York merchant, who built a summer home nearby. By then the fort was derelict, looted of everything that could be carried away, including much of the stone. Pell put a stop to the looting but left things pretty much as he found them.

In the 1880s, however, his great-great-grandson, Stephen Pell, fell in love with the place and vowed that he when he grew up, he would restore it. He began in 1908. When he died in 1950, the restoration was almost finished, and it continues under the guidance of his son, John H. G. Pell, as a family responsibility. In addition to the fortifications themselves, Fort Ticonderoga houses one of the finest small museums of its kind in the United States, depicting the history of the “Place between Big Waters.”

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