Fort Ticonderoga commands the west side of the lower end of Lake Champlain, its cannon covering both the approach from Canada and the St. Lawrence the north to the southern end of the lake - and the critical portage to the top of Lake George, only a mile or so to the east. In 18th century terms, it was a crucial valve in the plumbing that conducted men and material through the resource-laden wilderness between Albany and Quebec. During the French & Indian War, it was the site of a particularly brutal little battle that the French - builders of the fort - won over the British; their victory was, however, short-lived. The English eventually won control over the areas to the north and west of Albany thanks to an influx of troops and superior American officers, from the young George Washington to the trackers and guides immortalized by James Fenimore Cooper several generations later.
Surrendered to Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen during the early Revolution and its cannon hauled by boat down Lake George and overland along the basic route of the Mass Turnpike to Boston - there to assist Washington in hurling the British from Boston - the fort was a picturesque wreck by the first years of the Republic; Jefferson and Madison, touring upstate New York, strolled its romantic ruins and marveled at the lakes. Rebuilt a hundred years ago - and in stages ever since - Ticonderoga today is the gem of New York's colonial historic sites, perfectly genuine at its stony base and brilliantly simple in its presentation. There is no gaudy visitors center, no audio visuals, no sense of the precious.
Yet, as we read this week in the Times, it's a financial wreck - a ruin of philanthropic ambition and management, and is considering selling its art collection or closing for a year. We visited Ticonderoga - my third visit, my children's second - last week on the way home from Lake George, and spend an hour wandering the battlements and peering at the collection of arms and other archeological wonders in the simple galleries housed in reconstructed barracks. It remains a wild and beautiful spot, its bloody history aside, and the views across the farmlands and up toward Mount Defiance (where the British mule-hauled cannon to eventually force Ticonderoga's surrender from the rebels) are singularly beautiful. Moreover, they tell almost the complete story of New York's importance to the new United States - sitting astride one of the great inland trade routes linking Canada with Albany and the Mohawk, New York and the Hudson.
The Times story quoted Cliff Siegfried, director of the New York State Museum and the State Department of Education’s assistant commissioner for museums, who hinted at state support to save Ticonderoga (run now by a private foundation) from closing.
“Its importance to the economy of that region and the history of New York is obvious,” Siegfried said. “We’re going to work with them to make sure that it doesn’t fail. This is a hiccup in its history.”
I hope so. But I also wonder why this country doesn't have equivalent of the UK's excellent National Trust, some sort of national repository charged with preserving history and heritage; too many important sites are maintained as roadside attractions - or rich people's playthings.