Comings and Goings of Commerce

At first the only highway was the lake, but once settlement began in earnest there was a need for overland routes. The Old State Road, constructed in 1790-93 from Keeseville to the border, generally follows the present route of U.S. 9. The Old Military Turnpike (1817-23) from Plattsburgh and another turnpike (1829-32) from Port Kent and AuSable Forks both ran west to Hopkinton in St. Lawrence County. These, along with farm-to-market roads opened by the towns as needed, and rough roads cut westward for mining and timber operations by the iron companies, became the basis of today’s highway network.

The great improvement to lake travel came early. In 1809, just two years after Fulton perfected the first steamboat, the Vermont began operation on Lake Champlain, making weekly trips from Whitehall to St. John, Quebec until 1815 when it sank. Others followed. By the 1840s steamboats served the length of the lake daily, with Port Jackson [later Valcour], Plattsburgh, Chazy Landing and Rouses Point the most important Clinton County landings.

In the first years of settlement the economy of the region depended upon lumbering and farming, soon adding iron mining and processing. The products of all three endeavors were mostly shipped northward into Canada. In 1823 workers completed the 63-mile Champlain Canal, connecting Lake Champlain at Whitehall to the Hudson River and the Erie Canal at Waterford. The opening of the canal made shipment of the Champlain Valley’s products practicable, but when the Erie Canal opened two years later it gave the rich wheat-producing Genesee Valley equally easy access to the New York market, and the Champlain Valley’s wheat era ended suddenly, though as late as 1875 census records show it had the second-highest winter wheat yield per acre in the state. The Champlain Canal’s most important shipments, as tabulated in 1848, were lumber, iron, cheese and potash.

The opening of the Champlain Canal in 1823 forever changed the direction and nature of trade and commerce in the Champlain Valley. The canal, connecting Lake Champlain to the Hudson River, redirected commerce into southern markets and fostered Clinton County iron and other industries. Increased freight tonnage on the lake – thanks to the canal -- necessitated the construction of several lighthouses including those at Cumberland Head, Isle La Motte, Windmill Point, Point Au Roche and Valcour Island. The 1843 completion of the Chambly Canal, a 12-mile waterway on the west bank of the Richelieu River north of the Quebec border, facilitated freight shipment to the St. Lawrence, but shipments southward on the Champlain Canal incurred no customs duties and retained the bulk of trade.

At one time ferries carried traffic across Lake Champlain wherever major roads reached the shore, at Cumberland Head, connecting with Grand Isle, Vermont, at Rouses Point (to Alburg), Chazy Landing (Isle LaMotte), and a few others now lost to memory. The fast-moving flow of water at Cumberland Head keeps solid ice from forming in winter. An air bubbling pipe now helps keep the channel open in cold weather for 24-hour, 7-day service. The only other all-year crossing is to the south at Essex, connecting with Charlotte, Vermont. Seasonal ferries run from Ferry Port Kent to Burlington, and Ticonderoga to Shoreham.

A nineteenth-century guidebook noted that the water of Lake Champlain was “crowded with shipping of all kinds; steamers, tugs, sloops, schooners, canal-boats, barges, and small craft…constantly passing to and fro, giving life and animation to the scene.” As demand for industrial resources accelerated, traffic on the Champlain Canal and Lake Champlain “doubled on the average, in every eight years,” reaching 1,100,000 tons in 1863. In winter, the frozen lake served as a highway. For example, sheep were driven across the ice to the railroad from Vermont. But a solidly-frozen lake could not be counted upon; in recent years that average date the lake has frozen at its widest has been February 15, and in some years it has not frozen solid at all.

The construction of railroads followed after mid-century. The Northern Railroad (later the Ogdensburg and Lake Champlain and then the Rutland) was completed in 1850 connecting Ogdensburg and Rouses Point with connections to Boston. In 1855 a connection to Montreal began operation but, due to the existing lake and canal service to Whitehall, it wasn’t until 1875 that a rail link from Plattsburgh south to Albany was completed.

Rail service made dairying and apple growing profitable in the late nineteenth century. Thanks to the railroad most of the products of the northern tier were sold in the markets of eastern New England. Rail transport slowly replaced canal and lake shipping.

Until well into the twentieth century, Clinton County’s roads were unsurfaced and far slower than the lake and the railroads. Highway travel increased after World War I with development of federal, state and county systems. In 1965-67 the completion of the Northway (Interstate 87) encouraged Canadian trade. The automobile and heavy trucking have replaced the canoe and bateaux, as well as the lake boat and railroad.

Not all commerce operated within the law. During the the years of Prohibition, from 1920 to 1933, many residents of Rouses Point, Champlain, Mooers and Plattsburgh used every imaginative means they could devise to get Canadian booze into the States. Bootleggers used farms, hotels, garages, and mountain camps as storage depots and transfer stations for illegal liquor. Canadian taverns and stores profited immensely from Prohibition; in November 1929, over 35,000 people crossed the border at Rouses Point, mostly to drink legally and buy alcohol for home consumption.

the best travel advice comes from the people who live here
Andrew Alberti

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