Plattsburgh, NY: The Heart of History

A snow covered view of Lake Champlain. Photos by Erica Garnett
A snow-covered view of Lake Champlain. Photos by Erica Garnett

Plattsburgh, NY and Lake Champlain’s Crucial Impact on the Wars, Slavery, and Society

By Erica Garnett

In the Adirondacks of upstate New York, the town of Plattsburgh is as richly dubbed in nature as it is history. North of Albany, South of Montreal and on the Eastern region border of Lake Champlain, the North Country area has served as a hub of events that shaped history due to its unique and strategic location.

Fresh Food With A Side of History

My February visit to Plattsburgh began at The Plattsburgh Brewing Company. The restaurant is located right in downtown Plattsburgh near local shopping centers and hotels. That is what I found most intriguing about Plattsburgh; that history lessons are being learned in the most common of places.

Manager Jon Fenimore originally is from New Jersey. Fenimore regards the town as a place with the community. This was reflected in the restaurant’s environment. Dates were underway and families of five and six were settling to eat together. The restaurant’s layout is equipped to handle all social settings as it opens to a lounge style bar with pool tables, flat screens, big couches and a transparent view of the in-house brewery.

The restaurant brews all of their beer in their in-house brewery. The favorites are The Angry Musket IPA, The Pluckey Rooster Ale and Macdonough’s Ghost Stout. The stout replaces typical coffee liqueur in the unique ‘beeramisu’ dessert, which finished off my cajun pasta dish.

The spicy marinara sauce in the dish served was a temporary time travel to New Orleans, pardoning me from the harsh February winter of upstate New York. All of the pasta, in addition to the dough for the pizza and flatbreads, are handmade every day. The Plucky Rooster Ale accompanied my meal as both a savory to compliment the spicy and a history lesson.

The in house brewery at Plattsburgh Brewing.
The in-house brewery at Plattsburgh Brewing.

The Irony Behind September 11th

It wasn’t until the next day in The War of 1812 Museum in Plattsburgh that I encountered the meaning behind my beer.

Legend has it that roosters would be on board the ships during the War of 1812 and would crow when cannonballs hit, which inspired the soldiers to keep fighting.

Visitors can also test their strength by lifting a cannonball that was used on the ships during naval battles. Another exhibit uses light up markers and a step-by-step spoken account of The Battle of Plattsburgh.

There are scale models of American ships used during the battles and an abundance of artifacts and local art pertaining to the War of 1812 and The Battle of Plattsburgh. The most famous attraction of the museum is the original Battle of Lake Champlain painting.

The Interpretive Center in the museum is designed to be informative and leaves the visitor with a rudimentary understanding of the crucial role of Lake Champlain and the Northern Country area during the wars.

Information includes how the region was an epicenter for smuggling and skirmishes which eventually resulted in a naval victory when the local militia held off the British army.

The bicentennial of The Battle of Plattsburgh was celebrated on September 11, 2014, which highlighted the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, ensuring 200 years of peace. This celebration shows not a disdain for American pride but in fact the opposite.

Turning Local Into National

The original Battle of Plattsburgh painting
The original Battle of Plattsburgh painting

The museum itself is located on the soil of the former Air Force Base, established in the 1950’s. When you first walk into the museum, a well-stocked gift shop greets customers that are about half Canadian and half American given the geographic proximity.

Books, clothing, games, local crafts and more correspond to exhibits just around the corner. The main purpose of the museum is to communicate local hist.

The museum hosts educational programs for school children and events for history savvy adults. A native to the area, Deno has been a manager at the museum for a year now. The most enjoyable part of the job for him is getting to meet and talk to people from all over.

Due to a large influx of Canadians, Deno hopes to have French and English guided exhibits for convenience. He views his job as consistently providing relevant and appropriate reference material in the exhibits to explain the battle to people. “If there wasn’t, I would probably be speaking in a different accent right now.”

Deno’s guiding perspective is, “With history is we all learn new stuff all the time.”

’The Royal Family’ of the North Country

Three generations of the Delord family
Three generations of the Delord family

War images featured in the museum were just a matter of looking out the window at the Kent Delord House. Located on 17 Cumberland Avenue, the 200-year-old mansion still stands across the street from Lake Champlain.

The wooden floors creak with age transitioning between rooms. They have been walked on by three generations of the provincial Delord family, the British military, President James Monroe and General Alexander Macomb.

Henry Delord, a French immigrant struck financial success in the 19th century but used it for the betterment of his community in a time of need and war.

Delord played many pivotal roles in the development and survival of Plattsburgh, serving as a merchant, a judge, farmer, and postmaster, even extending credit to the federal army in lieu of the government. Delord was also awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The Delord family carried a legacy of social charity and community concern throughout the generations. The nuclear family portraits hang against two adjacent walls, picturing Henry Delord next to his wife, Betsey Ketchum Delord, their daughter, Frances Henrietta as a child and then as an adult next to husband, Henry Livingston Webb and lastly, their daughter, Franny.

The pictures themselves traveled back and forth across French and American soils. My tour guide, Pat Loughan commented, “Those pictures have probably traveled more than most people.”

Hoarded Letters and High-Class Mahogany

The abandoned artillery chest left by British troops
The abandoned artillery chest left by British troops, gingerly opened by Pat.

The original pieces in the house include large mahogany tables that remained relatively unharmed after serving as the headquarters during British military occupation. When the war subsided and the Delords returned from the Quaker Union in Peru, New York, they found an artillery chest.

The desk also remains where Henry Delord corresponded with his sister in France through a series of recovered letters never disposed of and where Franny’s husband Frank wrote his sermons for his local church. Franny’s entrepreneurial experiments resulting in ‘Fanoline’, a spermicide and paraffin wax treatment for chapped skin and hemorrhoids, were also found. Her proclivity to medicine lead her to oversee conditions in the local hospitals and prisons and provided free service to the poor.

Loughan describes the women as the entertainers of the house who took care of things in the house. Walking through each room, viewing the real china in the cabinets, the rope beds and chamber pots and Victorian style furniture, you get a sense of their daily life.

“You have connections to all the aspects of life over that century and all these people who made names for themselves. It’s amazing” says Loughan.

The leg iron
The leg iron

A retired history teacher and an affiliate of the museum for about 12 years, Loughan commented on the importance of history.

“People have to know where they came from to know who they are and where they are going.”

Scars, Leg Irons and Nails

Jacqueline Madison holds a similar mindset of history, commenting, “You need history to ensure that it does not happen again.”

Madison is the President of The North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association for ten years now. The association manages the North Star Underground Railroad Museum in Ausable Chasm, about twenty minutes away from Plattsburgh.

Now in its fourth year of operation, the museum highlights the tales of slaves who courageously sought their freedom and found refuge in the Lake Champlain area. Verified stories like those of John Thomas and Levinia Bell’s provide compelling truths of the utilization and involvement of the North Country During the 1850’s and 60’s.

Documents found include a Montreal’s doctor’s note of Levinia Bell’s scars on her back from physical abuse, during an examination. Her story is presented in combination with the Norfolk to Freedom Story. The story of John Thomas is a popular aspect of the museum, involving a wealthy quaker and abolitionist of the time, Garrett Smith, who provided John Thomas with land.

A leg iron, found in the Northern Country area sits on display in the museum. The location of the museum itself was not part of the Underground Railroad although the nearest site is about a mile down the road. The museum is built on the foundation of where there Horse Nail Factory used to stand whose owner fought in the Civil War. The sporadic nails sticking out of the original floor serve as a reminder of the past just as the pictures on the wall do.

A Unique Experience

The museum is organized into four different viewing rooms. Exhibits are comprised largely of videos, dramatic readings and detailed visual displays. There are stimulations of what it was like to hide as a slave in the Lake Champlain “The museum brings out mixed emotions in those who view it” says Madison.

The research behind the stories and information in the museum has been 20 years in the making. Don Papson, the founding President of the association, alongside his wife, Vivian Papson are viewed as compelling and dedicated individuals by Madison.

The information is not overwhelming in and concisely in the presentation. Madison refers to this saying, “The museum says the story much differently.” She speaks of the heroes who put their lives at risk who were everyday people of the Northern Country, ultimately calling these stories, “a positive twist on history.”

When it comes to history, Madison says, “You hear a lot of negative views of history and we need to start hearing more of the positive.”

Erica Garnett is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn NY. 

Check out the websites of all the museum I visited so you can start planning your trip there.

Kent Delord House
Battle of Plattsburgh Association – War of 1812 Museum
North Star Underground Railroad Museum

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