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William Ferris Pell, Horticulturalist

When William Ferris Pell purchased the 546-acre Garrison Grounds encompassing the ruins of Fort Ticonderoga in 1820, he preserved the remaining stonework of the Fort and began shaping the landscape surrounding the summer home he built nearby.  Set in a pastoral landscape, the site was described as reminiscent of “park scenery of England; and the view of the ruins from those meadows is strikingly beautiful: the clumps of trees, the circuitous route [to the ferry dock], the view of Lake Champlain on the right, and an amphitheatre of wood on the left, make this a most beautiful and interesting route.”

Diagram of gooseberries
A large collection of gooseberries was included in William Ferris Pell’s garden.

Pell worked in the family business, Pells and Company, an auction house and import/export firm that later evolved into a financing company.  The early 1800s ushered in significant changes as New York City became a center for landscape gardeners and nurserymen.  Horticultural societies were formed and proper country estates with picturesque landscapes were created by industrialists north along the Hudson River. Frequent trips by Pell through the Champlain Valley to Burlington, Vermont, and Canada brought him past the ruined Fort and spacious grounds where he decided to erect his summer home on the shores of Lake Champlain.

William Ferris Pell had a keen interest in botany, purportedly studying at Columbia College under Dr. David Hosick, a well-known and respected botanist and horticulturalist who founded Elgin Garden, a botanic garden, herbarium, and library three and a half miles outside of New York’s city limits where Rockefeller Center stands today.  Pell’s sketch made for the layout of his Ticonderoga property included a plum nursery and a fenced and gated yard or garden with internal pathways.  His passion for trees is apparent in the number and variety of species he planted around the home he named the Pavilion (1826).  An early visitor remarked that Pell “has been at pains to bring varieties of trees, shrubs, and fruits” to his gardens.  Ornamental and fruit-bearing trees are mentioned in an 1841 edition of Theodore Dwight’s Northern Traveller, including “the choicest fruits imported from Europe”, thousands of flourishing locust trees, horse chestnut, catalpa, and “upwards of 70 varieties of the gooseberry from Europe.”

Photograph of the Pavilion
Stereoview photo from c. 1875 showing a tall, narrow ornamental tree behind the Pavilion.

Early photographs in the Fort’s collection depict some of the specimens planted around the Pavilion.  Three black locust trees dating from this era still remain on the front lawn.  A notable tree whose species has not been identified appears in numerous images from 1875 – 1917.  Its unique columnar effect suggests that William Ferris Pell may have planted it as part of his collection.  Some sentiment may have been attached to the venerable old tree.  After it died around 1911, the branches were trimmed back and the main truck left to allow vines to grow up it for perhaps a decade; a somewhat disorderly arrangement compared to the finely kept gardens nearby.  The last record of the tree is a family photo of the resident foreman and his son taken next to its lifeless trunk.

Lithograph of Pavilion and trees around it
This 1884 lithograph depicts representations, but not all the trees on the landscape. The artist chose to include the unique specimen near the Pavilion.

Landscape trees added by the Pell family in the early 1900s are the next generation of legacy trees to be planted on the Pavilion grounds.   Images and documents from the Fort’s collection are used to help date changes made to the landscape and learn the age of the trees.  These historic trees are the subject of the Fort Fever Series program entitled “A Timeline of Trees on the Pavilion Landscape” presented on Sunday, February 10th, 2013.  Learn more about this snowshoe walk/hike here.

Exploring our site on foot and walking beneath towering ash, maples, oaks, and many others, is a way to step into the past and imagine yourself visiting in 1845 and experiencing “drops of sunshine which steal from beneath the sloping eaves of the verdant grove.”

Heidi teRiele Karkoksi
Director of Horticulture