Heritage Trail Challenge in Northern New York State

Shaker Meeting House Watervliet Shaker historic site Albany NY Womens Heritage Trail (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Meeting House built in 1848 at the Watervliet Shaker historic site in Albany NY, on the New York State Women’s Heritage Trail (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

There were two parts to my recent travel challenge to myself in northern New York State:

  1.  Visit one historic site on each of four state-designated heritage trails, and/or
  2.  Be able to visit anything during winter storm Stella, which in one day dumped more than three feet of snow onto Lake Placid and the Adirondacks in northern New York, where I was speaking at a conference.

What I learned from the experience was that even when every single thing you want to see is closed, and it is uncertain as to whether the right roads are plowed so that you can even get close to a site, it is still worth some detours to wander around interesting buildings and read the available information signs and historical markers.

Come along to see what a snowplow-dodging history nerd found….

Theodore Roosevelt Trail

North Creek Railroad Station on the New York State Theodore Roosevelt Heritage Trail (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

North Creek Railroad Station on the New York State Theodore Roosevelt Heritage Trail (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

New York native Teddy Roosevelt crammed an awful lot of living into his life: youngest man elected to the State Assembly, Governor, Vice President, President, conservation enthusiast, author, and Medal of Honor winner as leader of the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War.

The 1871 North Creek train station on New York’s Theodore Roosevelt Heritage Trail marks the spot where then-Vice President Roosevelt learned that he was about to become President. While vacationing in the Adirondacks, he learned that President McKinley was probably not going to survive being shot by the anarchist Czolgosz in Buffalo, New York.

After a frantic overnight ride from his remote location, using three relay teams of horses, carriages, and drivers, he arrived at the station at 4:45 a.m. on September 14, 1901, only to learn that McKinley was gone, and he was suddenly the man in charge.

He boarded a train at North Creek to begin his journey to Buffalo to be sworn in as the 26th President.

Underground Railroad Trail

Abolitionist John Brown's farm and gravesite Lake Placid NY (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Abolitionist John Brown’s farm and gravesite in Lake Placid, NY, on the New York Underground Railroad Trail (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Because the state had many safe havens and was the home of anti-slavery luminaries and leaders like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Henry Ward Beecher, and Sojourner Truth, New York’s Underground Railroad Trail highlights more than just the specific stops along the escape route to Canada.

It surprised me to learn that famous abolitionist “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, his soul is marching on….” is buried in Lake Placid (the melody to that morbid popular song became the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”)

Sign at the entrance of John Brown Farm on the New York Underground Railroad Trail (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Sign at the entrance of John Brown Farm on the New York Underground Railroad Trail (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

In 1849, Brown moved to Lake Placid with his family to help with a free black settlement called “Timbucto.” Ten years later in 1859, he led a failed raid on the U.S. weapons arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, as he and his followers tried to take the weaponry to use in a slave uprising.

Hung for his crime, he’s now buried at his home: the John Brown Farm State Historic Site.

Revolutionary War Trail (kinda, sorta)

There are plenty of famous U.S. Revolutionary War sites in Boston, New Jersey, Philadelphia, New England, and of course Yorktown in Virginia, but I learned on this trip that almost a third of all the battles fought were in New York state, including those in Saratoga, Oriskany, Newtown, and the extraordinary capture of Fort Ticonderoga in 1775.

I was SO looking forward to a specially-arranged media opportunity to visit Ticonderoga….even though it is normally closed in the winter….but once again, the Stella blizzard foiled that plan.

You would think with 77 sites on New York’s Revolutionary War Heritage Trail that we could find a backup place to visit, but with limited time to explore a narrow strip of territory, it wasn’t happening. After a lot of scrolling through maps and apps, though, a solution popped up.

Not too far off of our route, in Glens Falls, New York, was Marker Number 9 on a different trail, but one that is tied to Revolutionary War history – the Henry Knox Trail (sometimes known as the Knox Cannon Trail.)

The Trail was created in the 1920s, with thirty bronze historic markers that commemorate the story of the route taken by a “noble train of artillery” – 43 heavy brass and iron cannons, six cohorns, eight mortars, and two howitzers, all captured when the Americans defeated the British at Ticonderoga.

Even though the largest of the cannons weighed 1,800 pounds, Continental Army artillery officer Henry Knox somehow removed them from the fort in the middle of winter. Using boats plus oxen and sleds, his team managed to transport all of the pieces across an icy lake, and then across 300 miles of New York and Massachusetts wilderness to deliver them to General George Washington in Boston to be used against the British.

Pretty ironic, since of course they had been taken from the British.

Knox Trail marker 9 in Glens Falls New York (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Knox Trail marker 9 in Glens Falls, New York (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Here is a closer look at the top of the marker, showing the oxen pulling sleds loaded with cannon, with a figure that is presumably Knox supervising:

Detail from Knox Trail Marker 9 oxen dragging heavy cannon 300 miles from Ticonderoga to Boston in the Revolutionary War (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Detail from Knox Trail Marker 9 oxen dragging heavy cannon 300 miles from Ticonderoga to Boston in the Revolutionary War. Fitting that it’s dusted with some snow from the Stella blizzard (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

All of the marker locations and background information on each are listed in this PDF of the Knox Trail monuments.

We almost drove right past Number 9 – it’s not very big and sits at the entrance to a YMCA next to municipal Crandall Park – and it’s not technically part of the state’s Revolutionary War Heritage Trail, but we called partial victory anyway.

Women’s Trail

Up until the very last minute, I did not think that we would be able to visit a site on New York State’s Women’s Heritage Trail. The day I landed in Albany before heading up to Lake Placid, we tried to find a place that was open on a Monday, or open during winter, or was NOT being renovated in some way (and was therefore closed.)

No luck.

Toward the end of the trip, time had run out to get me to an airport hotel and wrap up the day, but the Interstate exit for the hotel also had a brown sign that said “Shaker Site.” One of the Women’s Trail sites had something to do with Shakers, we remembered – could this possibly be the same one, right near the airport of all places?

And could we see any of it before dark?

The answer was yes; the entrance road to the Watervliet Shaker Historic District had been plowed, so we drove in and looked around a little.

Entrance to Watervliet Shaker Historic District Albany NY Womens Heritage Trail (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Entrance to the Watervliet Shaker Historic District in Albany NY, on the New York State Women’s Heritage Trail (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Watervliet was the first Shaker settlement in the United States, established by the visionary Ann Lee and her group of followers to create a sort of Utopian community that was also a productive working farm and light manufacturing establishment. Shakers were a breakaway sect of former Quakers.

From the website:

“This was the site where the Shakers first developed their famous garden seed industry. Quality control, standardization of seed size and the innovative packaging of seeds (still used today) quickly led to a widely known reputation for excellence in farming operations. The Shaker flat broom, several modified agricultural tools and vacuum sealed tin cans were all invented at the Watervliet site. Shakers regarded their daily tasks as an offering to God. Cleanliness, honesty, tolerance and hard work were an important aspect of their culture dating back to Ann Lee.”

Even in the near-dark, snowy conditions at the farm, I was impressed by how peaceful it looked, and how beautifully the plain Shaker-style buildings blended into the pastoral scenery, only a block or so from the Albany airport.

The Trail Challenge was probably some of the most fun I’ve packed into a few hours, even though nothing turned out the way I’d expected. Don’t let less than ideal weather or closures ever deter you from exploring.

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