The Native Americans gave it a name: Ticonderoga, “the place between waters.”
Up and down its slope have passed explorers and naturalists such as Isaac Jogues and Peter Kalm, travelers such as Thomas Jefferson and, of course, the armies of the French, the British and the Americans as supremacy over North America and its strategic waterways shifted from one nation to another.
Thanks to PRIDE of Ticonderoga, a local civic organization, a three-mile trail along the LaChute River has been created and can easily be hiked, a fact unknown to most visitors to Lake George’s south basins, and to many of its residents as well, for that matter.
The best place to start is the Ticonderoga Heritage Museum, located near the Carillon or lower falls, where the LaChute River becomes a placid creek.
The museum, which occupies the administrative offices of the old Ticonderoga Pulp and Paper Company, is not simply a convenient trail head. It’s also an introduction to the river’s industrial heritage.
The large Bicentennial Park, at the edge of which sits the museum, was, until the early 1970s, a complex of pulp and paper mills ultimately controlled by the International Paper Company.
It was also the site of Joseph Dixon and Company, which refined the graphite from Hague for the famed Ticonderoga pencils.
Under director Mary Curtis, the Heritage Museum has developed a series of interpretive displays that explain how the river made Ticonderoga an industrial center of northern New York.
From the outlet at Lake George to the creek, the river powered saw mills and grist mills as well as small factories making barrels, boxes, furniture and even boats.
Six dams interrupted the river’s 220-foot descent from Lake George to Lake Champlain, and portions of their remains can be seen along the trail.
The last dam encountered (if walking uphill from the Heritage Museum) is located nearest to the outlet of the lake. It is now operated by a hydro-electric power plant.
State law, however, requires that outflows from the dam be managed for the benefit of Lake George and the maintenance of predictable lake-levels, which the hydro-electric company does under the supervision of the Lake George Park Commission.
It was not always thus. High lake waters, washing the soil off the roots of trees along the shores of the islands, and killing the trees, had been “a headache since 1887,” a Lake George Association official said in 1943.
John Apperson, the noted conservationist, and Nobel Laureate Irving Langmuir became convinced that the dam at the outlet of the lake, then operated by International Paper and used to generate power its mills, was causing the lake to rise and fall above and below its natural levels, and was thus responsible for the erosion of the islands. Lake George, they declared, should not be a mill-pond.
Since many of the islands suffering from erosion were owned by the state, Langmuir believed that New York should sue the owners of the dam for destroying parts of the forest preserve. He urged the Lake George Association to pass a resolution calling upon the state to initiate such a lawsuit, which, had it been successful, would have forced the dam to be demolished. The LGA demurred, preferring instead to support the establishment of a state legislative committee to investigate the causes of the fluctuating water levels.
Nevertheless, the Attorney General did commence a lawsuit, and Langmuir established another organization to support it. In the end, the suit was dismissed. But the courts ruled that the state had the authority to regulate water levels on Lake George, and legislation was passed that ensures that the dam is operated in such a way that water levels do not vary drastically from year to year.
The best view of the dam is from a footbridge, constructed in 2011, at the site of a disused railroad trestle. Across that bridge, trains once took steamboat passengers from the Baldwin docks on Lake George to Ticonderoga and Lake Champlain, where their journey through “the great northeast passage” would continue.
If you go: A walking map of the LaChute River Walk published by PRIDE of Ticonderoga is available at the Ticonderoga Heritage Museum, which is located at the intersection of Montcalm Street and Bicentennial Park and is open weekends until Columbus Day. Call 585-2696 for more information. More information about the Lake George-Lake Champlain corridor, or “the great northeast journey” can be found at the website of Lakes to Locks Passage, lakestolocks.com.
Photos: From above, the Lower Falls in spring, the Ticonderoga Heritage Museum, the 1879 Frazier Bridge.