By Rich Strum, Director of Education
Several future U.S. Presidents visited Fort Ticonderoga in the late 18th century, including George Washington (1783), Thomas Jefferson (1791), and James Madison (1791), but to date, only one sitting President has visited Fort Ticonderoga—William Howard Taft on July 6, 1909.
President Taft’s visit came during the Champlain Tercentenary Celebrations, commemorating the 300th anniversary of Samuel de Champlain’s exploration of the region in the summer of 1609. The week-long celebration took place at Crown Point, Ticonderoga, Plattsburgh, Burlington, and Isle La Motte, in addition to locally-sponsored events throughout the Champlain Valley (Vergennes, VT had its own Tercentenary Day in early July, as did the Village of Ticonderoga).
Fort Ticonderoga was the official location for the second day of the Champlain Tercentenary Celebration on Tuesday, July 6, 1909. Restoration work on the Officers’ Barracks of the old Fort had gotten underway earlier in the year under the direction of Stephen and Sarah Pell. Tercentenary Day at Fort Ticonderoga would be the first day the restoration work would be open for the inspection of the public and President William Howard Taft was expected to attend.
In March 1909, the New York Tercentenary Champlain Commission added Ticonderoga to the President’s itinerary. He was already committed to attend the events in Plattsburgh on July 7th and in Burlington on July 8th.
A full day of activities and events was planned for the Fort grounds on July 6th. Sham battles (what we would call re-enactments today) depicted Champlain’s encounter with the Mohawks here in 1609 and then the epic 1758 Battle of Carillon. The Native Americans participating in the Tercentenary events throughout the week were primarily from Canada and presented an “Indian Pageant” on a floating island constructed on barges moved from venue to venue up and down Lake Champlain. These Indians participated in the sham battle between the Mohawks and Champlain’s allies. Members of Company I of the Tenth Regiment took on the role of Champlain and his fellow Frenchmen. Company I also made up both the French and British in the re-created Battle of Carillon. Company I participated in both sham battles in their regular uniforms.
Literary exercises included a host of speeches and orations, culminating in a brief address by the President. Other speakers included New York Governor Charles Evans Hughes, British Ambassador James Bryce, and French Ambassador Jean Jules Jusserand. The newspapers estimated that a crowd of up to 20,000 gathered on the plain to the north of the Fort to listen to the speeches and to cheer on President Taft.
During his brief visit, Taft was given a tour of the restoration work by Sarah Pell and took a refreshment at the Pavilion before departing northward aboard the Lake Champlain steamer Ticonderoga.
Taft, like many of the attendees that day, arrived by train. The Delaware & Hudson Railroad added additional special trains throughout the day to transport thousands to the Fort grounds and then to take people home afterwards. The trains discharged passengers at Addison Junction, located near the present-day Amtrak station on NYS Route 74. From there, attendees walked the three-quarters of a mile to the Fort and the site of the festivities.
Taft departed Norwich, Connecticut, late on July 5th, traveling in the private car “Mayflower” to Grand Central Station in New York City overnight. His car, attached to the “Adirondack and Montreal Express,” departed Grand Central Station for Albany at 7:45 in the morning. A special Delaware & Hudson train then took the President North from Albany to Addison Junction, arriving at 2:45 in the afternoon.
Taft was met at the station by a delegation that included Colonel Robert Means Thompson, father of Sarah Pell. An automobile carried the President from the station to the Fort for a brief tour before the same automobile took the President to the grandstand, where the literary activities were already underway.
The Ticonderoga peninsula had been inundated by a heavy rain overnight, and on and off showers had plagued the festivities throughout the morning and early afternoon. As the President’s automobile headed down the hill from the Fort, “the big machine, its wheels locked by the brakes, slipping over the treacherous surface, began to skid toward the edge of the roadway. The chauffer quickly got the car under control, however, and the danger was over in an instant. The president was the least concerned of any person in the large throng.”
Rain, and the thick, slippery clay, was the on-going topic of the day. Even President Taft couldn’t resist a humorous start to his remarks to the crowd: “Had a good deal of rain here, haven’t you?” he asked. While the rain had ceased during the majority of the literary exercises, it began again just as the speeches concluded, leaving the President to walk the quarter mile from the grandstand to the Pavilion and the dock where the steamer Ticonderoga awaited his arrival in the rain.
President Taft departed aboard the Ticonderoga, which carried him and the ambassadors to Port Henry, where they found the private car “Mayflower” waiting to take them to Plattsburgh for the following day’s festivities.
The regional and national newspapers were full of details about President Taft’s visit to Fort Ticonderoga on July 6, 1909. The New York Sun featured especially poetic descriptions of the day. An example follows, describing the fair-like atmosphere on the Fort grounds:
They strolled over the grounds, in woods and meadows, and picknicked and made merry—yes, some of them gambled with the sharpers, who did not worry about [Governor] Hughes being present, and got stung—and everything was nice until the rain fell and then there was a lot of scampering and soiled finery and displays of—well, the styles of hosiery in upper New York seem about the same in the city, but it was noticed that walking up and down the hills here seems to tend toward a larger, more rotund development of calf measure than in the cities.
Join us on Sunday, January 8, 2017, for our first “Fort Fever Series” program of the year where I will be sharing much more about President Taft’s visit to Fort Ticonderoga in “President Taft Comes to Ticonderoga.” Cost is $10 per person; Members of Fort Ticonderoga are admitted free of charge.