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Lake Champlain and American History

Re-enactors at Fort William Henry

Last week a friend emailed that he was taking a quick vacation trip to the shore of Lake Champlain. While the lake is a delightful destination relatively close to Lowell, I know it best as one of the most important places in American history, especially American military history. Noted British historian Sir John Keegan in his book “Fields of Battle: The Wars for North America” (1905) identified Lake Champlain as one of the most fought-over places in North America. (One of the others was Yorktown, Virginia).

I’ve long been interested in military history and from an early age realized that actually visiting a battlefield even centuries after battle occurred improves the ability to understand  what had happened there. Consequently, I have visited many battlefields on or near Lake Champlain given its relative proximity to Lowell. Here are some of the highlights of my travels:

Lake Champlain is named for French explorer Samuel de Champlain who reached the lake in 1609. The lake is 490 square miles making it the 13th largest lake in the United States. It is 107 miles long, 14 miles wide, and it separates Vermont and New York and also extends into Canada. The lake collects water from the Green Mountains of Vermont and the Adirondacks of New York. It is home to all types of aquatic activities and adventures and partially freezes in the winter. 

Rogers Rangers was a unit of light infantry under the command of Major Robert Rogers which fought on the British side on Lake Champlain during the French and Indian War. Originally just one company of about 100 men, mostly from New Hampshire, the Rangers were so successful that eventually multiple companies were formed, all under the command of Rogers. The Rangers operated year round on and alongside Lake Champlain using whaleboats in the summer and snow shoes in the winter and venturing on raids against French and Indian towns far from their base. Rogers developed “28 Rules of Ranging” which are still used today in an updated form by the U.S. Army’s elite 75th Ranger Regiment. Because Rogers chose to fight (every effectively) for the British in the American Revolution, he is not as much of an American hero as his exploits in the French and Indian War would warrant.

Fort William Henry

The Last of the Mohicans is set in the North American wilderness during the French and Indian War. A historic novel written by James Fenimore Cooper in 1826 and enhanced by the excellent 1995 film starring Daniel Day-Lewis, much of the book is set at Fort William Henry which is just 3 miles southwest of Lake Champlain. Some background: In the French and Indian War, the French pushed down Lake Champlain and built a massive stone fortress near the lake’s southern tip. Called Fort Carillon by the French, this fort posed a strategic threat to British North America. In response, British forces from Fort Edward which was on the Hudson River about 20 miles southwest of Champlain, moved northeast and built a new fort just three miles from Ticonderoga to block the French path to the Hudson. This new fort, constructed on the shore of Lake George, was named Fort William Henry. In August 1757, the French besieged William Henry and the British surrendered. Because they did not have the resources to hold or feed prisoners, the victorious French released the British on parole (meaning they would not fight in the future). While marching through the wilderness from Fort William Henry to Fort Edward, the British column was ambushed by Native American allies of the French and many were killed. The French burned the vacated Fort William Henry and withdrew to Fort Carillon. Two years later, the British captured Fort Carillon and renamed it Ticonderoga.  

Washington at Dorchester Heights painting at Pollard Memorial Library

The Knox Trail is the route used by Henry Knox to drag dozens of cannon through the snow from Fort Ticonderoga to the outskirts of Boston during the winter of 1775-76. There, American commander George Washington had the cannon surreptitiously emplaced atop Dorchester Heights which forced the British to evacuate Boston in March 1776. Although the British had fought hard to capture Ticonderoga in 1759, the fort’s value was greatly diminished by the end of the French and Indian War which expelled the French from Canada and made it a British possession. In fact, when the American Revolution began in April 1775 there was only a single British sergeant at Ticonderoga as a caretaker. The following month, American forces led by Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen evicted the caretaker and captured the fort and its cannon.  

Plaque at location of General Montgomery’s death in Quebec

The Invasion of Quebec was launched from Lake Champlain in August 1775. An American force under the command of General Philip Schuyler (the father of the Schuyler sisters of “Hamilton” fame) moved “up” the lake (to the north) to engage the British who were threatening an invasion from Montreal. Schuyler became ill and his second-in-command, General Richard Montgomery, took over. Back at his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, American Army commander in chief George Washington sought to capture Canada before reinforcements could arrive from England. He ordered Montgomery to attack first Montreal and then Quebec and delegated Benedict Arnold, then back in Boston, to lead a second wing of the invasion force through the wilderness of Maine and simultaneously attack Quebec from the east. Montgomery, after first capturing Montreal, reached Quebec in late December 1775 and Arnold arrived a few days later. They launched their joint assault in a blizzard on New Year’s Eve (December 31, 1775). Montgomery was killed by hostile fire early in the action and Arnold was shot in his left leg. The American invaders were repulsed. They remained outside of Quebec for several months but withdrew south just before British reinforcements sailed up the Saint Lawrence River in the spring of 1776. 

Gunboat Philadelphia at Smithsonian American History Museum

The Battle of Valcour Island took place on Lake Champlain on October 11, 1776. The British reinforcements that arrived in Canada that spring were intended to attack down Lake Champlain to split the American colonies in two and thereby put an end to the rebellion. But without control of Lake Champlain, the British Army could not advance. While the British constructed their own warships at the northern end of the lake the Americans, under the command of – you guessed it – Benedict Arnold, did the same at the southern end. Although the British fleet was larger and had more firepower, Arnold used the lake’s terrain with great skill, hiding his fleet between Valcour Island and the lake’s western shore. When the British sailed past Valcour on its eastern side without spotting the Americans, Arnold ordered his ships to loop around the northern tip of the island and attack the British from the rear. The wind which had at first favored the British now favored Arnold. The battle lasted throughout the day and Arnold’s fleet was pulverised ship-by-ship but not before the British sustained such substantial damage that they were forced to retreat back to their end of the lake. With winter almost upon them, the British had to defer their army attack until 1777.

The Boot Monument at Saratoga National Battlefield

The Battle of Saratoga was more of a campaign than a single engagement. In the spring of 1777 the British relaunched their invasion southward on Lake Champlain, quickly capturing Fort Ticonderoga from the Americans. From there, the British continued southwest and crossed the Hudson River, expecting to link up with another British force moving up the Hudson from New York City. But for a variety of reasons, when that second force left New York City, it headed south into New Jersey rather than north up the Hudson. This left the British coming from Canada desperate for supplies and resulted in major foraging raids into Vermont (one of which was defeated at the Battle of Bennington). The main British force on the western side of the Hudson first engaged the Americans on September 19, 1775, at Saratoga. 

The battle that day went back-and-forth but ultimately the Americans prevailed due mostly to the inspired leadership of Benedict Arnold who was in the midst of the action. But in his report of the battle to Congress, General Horatio Gates, the overall American commander who never left his tent during the fight, took full credit for the victory without ever mentioning Arnold. Incensed by this slight, Arnold demanded an immediate transfer which Gates obliged. Despite this transfer, Arnold lingered in the American camp and so on October 7, 1777, when the battle recommenced, Arnold was still in his tent not far from the action. Although he had no command of any kind, at the decisive point of the battle, Arnold jumped onto a horse and charged to the front of the lines where he so inspired the American forces that they prevailed and the British Army surrendered. Before the fighting had stopped, Arnold was shot in the same left leg that had been wounded in Quebec. As everyone knows, Arnold later betrayed his country and fought for the British. There’s a story that as a British general he was interrogating a captured American officer and asked what they’d do to him (Arnold) if he was ever captured. The officer is said to have replied, “We’d cut off the leg that was so nobly wounded at Quebec and at Saratoga and bury it with honors, then we’d hang the rest of you.” In that spirit, at the Saratoga National Battlefield today, visitors encounter a unique monument at the scene of Arnold’s October 7th heroics. The monument is a left boot with no mention of who wore it.

The War of 1812 was going well for the British by the summer of 1814. In August they had captured Washington D.C. and burned the Capitol and the White House. In September, a British invasion force was massed at the northern edge of Lake Champlain, ready to slice southward and separate New England from the rest of the United States. On September 11, 1814, a small U.S. Navy force under the command of Commodore Thomas MacDonough aboard U.S.S. Saratoga, engaged and decisively defeated the British force. Peace negotiations had commenced in August in the city of Ghent, Belgium. When news reached the two delegations of the American victory on Lake Champlain (called the Battle of Plattsburgh) along with news that the British force that had burned the Capitol had failed to capture Baltimore (see “The Star Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key), the British dropped any demands for territory to end the war and the treaty was finalized. (Andrew Jackson’s victory over a third British force outside of New Orleans took place on January 8, 1815, two weeks after the peace treaty was signed on December 24, 1814, and so it had no impact on the treaty negotiations).   

So that’s some of the history of Lake Champlain. If you ever get a chance to visit, stop at some of the above-mentioned historic sites and use the “comment” feature on this post to suggest similar sites to see.

Mass. voting laws need upgrade by Marjorie Arons-Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons-Barron’s own blog.

Any-reason absentee voting, expanded early voting, drop boxes, all designed to limit exposure to COVID-19, all worked to enhance Massachusetts voter turnout for the 2020 election. 3.7 million – 76 percent of those registered – turned out, the highest percentage since 1992. Those procedures expired in June, and, while they have now been extended through December, covering this fall’s municipal elections, it’s up to the legislature to make them permanent.

Last February, Secretary of State Bill Galvin supported the effort to institutionalize the pandemic voting arrangements, and the legislature’s Election Laws Committee, with differences between House and Senate versions, is weighing a variety of measures (HD.1536 (led by Rep. John Lawn) and SD.1002 (led by Sen. Cindy Creem), but, with an August recess on the calendar, action is expected to be deferred until this fall. Making sure the broadest efforts to expand voter participation in Massachusetts is of no little importance.

Voting by mail and early voting ahead of both primary and general elections are of utmost importance. No-excuse voting by mail made life much easier in 2020. Without it, voters could qualify for an absentee ballot only if they were going to be out of town on election day, had a disability preventing them from going to the polling place in person, or held a religious belief making them unable to vote that day. This is far too restrictive, and the fact that 2020 mail-in procedures went off without a hitch validates the new process, which must be made permanent.

Pending legislation would also offer early voting seven days before a primary and 14 days before a general election. Early voting in 2020 cost about $3 million, reimbursed to cities and towns by the state. Pending legislation could be amended to cover such costs proactively and would be well worth the outlay given the anticipated enhancement of voter participation.

Well over half all Massachusetts voters took advantage of the mail-in and early voting options in 2020. Other reforms would allow prospective voters to register the same day they cast a ballot. Twenty-one other states and the District of Columbia, including neighboring New Hampshire and Maine, already provide same-day voter registration. This means that, if, for example, you have moved from Boston to Wayland, you could update the information and not be denied your vote.

Every year, as many of 9,000 state residents are held pending trial or incarcerated on misdemeanor charges. As such, they are still allowed to vote. During the last election, just three or four percent of those eligible to apply for absentee ballots actually did so. The pending legislation would make sure that sheriffs provide materials to educate those low-level prisoners of their existing rights to participate in the electoral process.

Another provision would make Massachusetts part of the ERIC system, the non-profit Electronic Registration Information Center, which not only keeps updating voter rolls but also commits members to contacting eligible but unregistered residents identified by ERIC, educating them on the most efficient means to register to vote. ERIC is already used by 30 other states and the District of Columbia. If the legislation is passed, the means of auditing election results (both voting machines and procedures) would be enhanced.

As Creem told me, the pending comprehensive proposal is “very inclusive.”

As I noted in my last blog, 17 states have enacted 28 new voter suppression laws. Another 400 proposed laws are pending. But we in the blue bubble of Massachusetts, with its nearly 30-year high record of voter participation last year, cannot sit around and congratulate ourselves on how good we are. The pandemic procedures, though extended through this fall, must be made permanent. And the comprehensive reforms promised in The Votes Act pending action in the Massachusetts legislature are an important way to provide the kind of robust voter participation that can help underpin a healthy democracy.

LaLa Books Comes to Lowell

Congratulations to LaLa Books which had its grand opening last Friday (July 23) at 189 Market Street (next to Warp & Weft). I visited on Saturday and was impressed with what I saw. It’s spacious and well laid-out and from its appropriately-sized inventory of books on the shelf, I found many that were of interest to me. (I purchased “Boston’s Oldest Buildings and Where to Find Them” by Joseph M. Bagley which was of interest for upcoming visits to Boston but also a model, hopefully, for something similar I might do for Lowell). 

LaLa Books at 189 Market Street (next to Warp & Weft)


In the early 1990s, Paul Tsongas said that to be considered in the upper tier of U.S. cities, a place like Lowell needed a minor league sports franchise. Fast forward thirty years and an apt corollary might be that to be considered a successful city (never mind “upper tier”) Lowell needs a bookstore. Up until Friday, we didn’t have one. Now that we do, all of us should make the effort to support it. 

A bookstore is more than just another retail establishment. A bookstore helps nurture the soul of the community. With that in mind, I found it reassuring that LaLa has a prominent “local author” section and a large space in the back of the store for community events. In fact, this coming Friday (July 30) at 6 pm will be LaLa’s first author reading which will feature two local authors (and friends), Chath pierSath (“On Earth Beneath Sky”) and Paul Marion (“Lockdown Letters & Other Poems”). 

Please check out LaLa’s website, sign up for its newsletter, and most importantly, go there and buy some books.

LaLa is open on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 10am to 6pm; on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 10am to 8pm; on Sunday from 10am to 2pm; and is closed on Monday.

A World Underground

All photos by Doug Sparks

A World Underground: Summer Rains Set Off a Merrimack Valley Mushroom Explosion

By Doug Sparks

This has been and will likely continue to be an exceptional year for Merrimack Valley mushroom hunters because of the unusual volume of rain. Unfortunately, it’s also a great year if you happen to be a gnat or a mosquito, so the pleasures of searching through the woods are offset with lots of bites and rashes, even with liberal use of DEET and the ridiculous use of insect netting worn around one’s hat. We won’t even talk about ticks. Ew.

There’s another issue. Mushroom hunters’ passion for their peculiar hobby may occasionally spill over into public enthusiasm, but with more people on the hunt, the worse it gets. I have set out early many mornings along favorite hiking trails to discover I’m too late — caps and stipes lie strewn about the duff. However, it’s part of the curious magic of mushrooms that even in heavily harvested areas, you can turn and, from a certain angle, discover a hidden patch of chanterelles that seem to be calling to you alone. They almost glow. Even scientific-minded professional mycologists sometimes make statements that makes that sound like stoned musicians — you don’t find the mushrooms. They find you.

Still, if you’re thinking of getting involved and are unsure, why not pay attention to sports instead? I hear they’re considered a popular amusement in our region. The woods are dangerous and scary places. Best stay home.

For those who stubbornly insist on going forward, know heavy rainfall brings with it the chance to discover some unusual species. My neighbors’ yard boasts a flush of xylaria polymorpha, also known as dead man’s fingers for their resemblance to zombie digits clawing out of the ground. Bird’s nest fungi, which look like tiny nests filled with eggs, are out there, as are swamp-loving mushrooms that look like tiny glowing torches. There are mushrooms that look like trumpets and brains and hedgehogs and dog’s noses and the rumps of birds. Some glow in the dark.

Now it’s probably time to hit pause and issue a few warnings. These warnings can go on, so I’ll do my best to keep matters brief. Every article intended for a general audience ever written on this topic makes a few key points: most mushrooms you find are inedible. In our region, very few are entheogenic or psychedelic (although judging by social media posts, apparently every waterlogged yard toadstool will turn you into the Lizard King). Quite a few are toxic. So why bother? I think at the most basic level, mushroom hunting makes hiking more interesting. But it has to mean more than this — otherwise, this pursuit wouldn’t have the magnetic pull it does over its adherents.

Part of the answer may lie in how mushrooms and fungi represent an immense source of often invisible power. Without them, the world would quickly turn into a dusty wasteland. The scariest apocalypse imaginable is a world without mushrooms — trees that depend on them for nutrients would die, animals who depend on them for nutrition would perish. And all those dead trees and animals wouldn’t get recycled back into the soil. The dry dust would soon suffocate all life and blot out the rays of the sun. Think of that next time you ask for mushrooms on your pizza. (Curious to learn more? A young English biologist, Merlin Sheldrake, published an excellent book on the topic in 2020, “Entangled Life.” It was one of my favorite pandemic reads.)

What you see when you hike in the woods is just the “fruiting body” of the organism — a momentary watery upshoot that balloons and fades after releasing spores. Sometimes this process only takes a few days. The main organism is called the mycelium — tiny, webby threads that carpet the soil, a hidden network impacting every living creature on earth despite being almost entirely invisible. Under the right conditions, mycelial mats intersect and, cue violins, fall in love. Their romance produces mushrooms, which release these spores in the tens of thousands back into the surrounding environment. The color of these spores can be a key identifier when determining species. Try this sometime. Place a fresh mushroom cap on a sheet of paper and gently remove it after a few hours. You’ll see an often striking, ghost-like image of the mushroom itself, in tints that range from salmon to purple to rusty-brown.

Do I need to mention that some of the deadliest mushrooms on the planet are common in the Merrimack Valley, or that your crazy uncle’s belief that “all mushrooms that grow on trees are safe to eat” can get you killed? If you’re new to this, the good news is that even the deadliest mushrooms are safe to handle. While some people are naively unaware of the dangers, it’s far more common to find people who naively overstate the risks. It’s safe enough for my two girls, one a toddler, one a pre-schooler, to join me on mushroom hunts — informed children make excellent amateur mycologists. They have held, with fascination and respect, such dreaded species as the Deadly Galerina (galerina marginata), the Destroying Angel (amanita virosa), and the Vomiter (chlorophyllum molybdites).

As for the rest, yeah, some of them taste good, too. Some might even someday help us develop a cure for cancer, diabetes and depression. Western medicine is just now coming to understand their health and nutritional benefits.

Whatever happens, or whatever your particular relationship might be with these strange objects sprouting up all around you in lawns, fields, orchards and woodlands, know they were here before us, and will be here after. Next time you hit the woods for a hike, pay close attention. Maybe they’ll call to you, too.

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