How an Engineering Marvel Crumbled
On a spit of land just shy of the U.S. border with Canada, the crumbling walls and ruins of Fort Montgomery hang on as a reminder of the area’s warring past.
Drivers crossing the airy bridge from Alburgh, Vermont to Rouses Point, New York, overlook the high stone walls rising from the swamps of northern Lake Champlain.
Just below a massive green sign welcoming drivers to New York, a faded blue historical marker standing at the edge of an asphalt turnout strewn with cigarette butts and empty bottles attempts to sum up Fort Montgomery’s excruciatingly complicated and dizzying history in three brief sentences. It reads:
“Fort Montgomery: Named for Amer. Gen. Richard Montgomery, Rev. War hero killed at Quebec 1775. This fort begun 1844. Armaments removed 1900.”
An overgrown ATV track on another side of the pullout is guarded by a rusted yellow gate dotted with two posted signs. Just to the left of the gate, a tall, weathered realty sign tilts alarmingly forward. “FOR SALE,” it reads, in large, block lettering, “FORT MONTGOMERY ISLAND. $2,950,000.”
Fort Montgomery’s elaborate history began in the early 19th century when the United States feared British Canada following the War of 1812. Construction ensued on an unnamed fort on Island Point, a strategic peninsula jutting out from the marshy mainland into Lake Champlain, just north of the small settlement of Rouses Point.
After an initial survey of the land, the workers discovered that Island Point was located three-quarters of a mile north of the U.S.-Canada border. After this, work came to a screeching halt. Because of this incident, the initial project was nicknamed “Fort Blunder.”
Interest in developing a fortress at the border piqued again in 1842 after the signing of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, which redrew the border and flopped ownership of Island Point to the United States. Construction on a new fort, Fort Montgomery, began two years later and was officially completed after 30 years of work.
Fort Montgomery saw little action. During its construction, the fort was manned only once to ward off potential attacks by Confederates sneaking in from Canada, which had happened in nearby St. Albans.
By the turn of the 20th century, the need for the fort disintegrated. Cannons were hauled away by train and the fort was sold in 1926.
During the Great Depression, a bridge was proposed to span the lake into Vermont, and Fort Montgomery would be the source of material for its foundation. Andrew Weston’s Mining Company was in charge of the demolition, which began during the summer of 1936. By the end of 1937, the job was complete and one-third of the fort was reduced to rubble.
After Weston’s demolition, iron fastening rods used to maintain structure in the fort were removed, presumably for use during World War II. As a result, what remains of the fort is structurally unstable and sometime during the 1970s the entire western wall fell into the moat.
Initially, locals were not upset by the decision to reuse the fort’s materials; it meant little in the way of history. As time passed, however, historians began to see the value in trying to protect the remaining portion of the engineering marvel that was Fort Montgomery, even if it was too late. As the late John Ross, former Rouses Point Village historian, wrote in 1955:
“The splendid stonework survived the attacks of the elements, but succumbed to the destructiveness of man.”
Island Point and the adjacent mainland, known as The Commons, have gone through numerous owners and countless attempts by private interests to give ownership to New York to preserve the site. Because of the gravity of its disrepair, the fort was deemed too dangerous and expensive to preserve and reconstruct. The most recent attempt to preserve the fort took place in 2007, when Fort Montgomery was listed as one of New York’s Seven to Save, a list of preservation projects that were deemed highly important to protect. No progress was made.
Robert St. John, historian at the Rouses Point Historical Society, believes that any attempt to preserve the remains would be a waste of time.
“Everybody knows it’s just not possible,” he said.
For locals like St. John, the fort held a different kind of purpose during the time period after its demolition. Boy scouts camped on the island under the shadows of the shattered bastions, farmers walked their cattle down to the parade grounds to graze on the overgrown grasses, and the eerie halls were the stages for countless parties and initiation ceremonies into Greek life at SUNY Plattsburgh.
“We were down there all the time as kids,” St. John said as he explained the danger of walking around the island, recalling near-misses with holes in the floors.
After a basic internet search, the remnants of Fort Montgomery can be found on privateislandsonline.com listed for $1.4 million. Fort Montgomery Island, as it is titled in the website, is described as “a truly unique and powerful investment opportunity,” including “the remaining portion of the 1800s era Fort Montgomery encompassing thousands of tons of Gray Limestone Blocks ready for your construction or restoration project.”
The future of Fort Montgomery is grim. Recently, a gap between the south and southeast walls has been identified and is apparently growing. It is unlikely that what remains of the fort will hold; its fate resembles that of the western wall that has collapsed into the lake.
Regardless of the future of the fort, the Village of Rouses Point is literally built upon the history of these two forts.
“Fort Blunder lives on in the walls of some of the more ancient and prominent buildings in the Rouses Point area,” wrote James P. Millard, author and Fort Montgomery specialist.
The Thurber House, a large brick home perched above Lake Street, was built in 1818 of materials set aside for Fort Blunder. Similarly, Blunder’s large gray limestone blocks were used to construct the Old Stone Store at the intersection of Champlain Street and Lake Street and, ironically, the home of Andrew Weston.
Additionally, Millard notes, before its partial-demolition, Fort Montgomery’s valuable items were auctioned off and “disappeared in the hands of local contractors, homeowners and history buffs.”
Someday, sooner rather than later, Fort Montgomery will fall into the lake, but its stalwart legacy will live on in Rouses Point.
Story and photos by Cal Seeley