Fort Ticonderoga’s Living History Connects You to History and Nature (5 stars)
Based in Eastern New York, Fort Ticonderoga was built by the French in 1755, seized by the British, and played a role in the American Revolutionary War. Now it’s a living history museum with costumed re-enactors, the fort, a corn maze, a garden, a lake boat tour, hiking trails, and a restaurant. You can rent see the long views from the top of nearby Mount Defiance, and they have numerous events including evening programs where they fire muskets and cannons. It’s not a national park or state park, but an “isdependent non-profit educational organization and museum”. Fort Ticonderoga likes to call itself America’s Fort, and it comes in at #6 on this list and #7 on this list of important US forts. It’s just a 4-hour drive from Boston, and right on the border with Vermont (and there is ferry nearby that takes you to Vermont.
Just the location is wonderfully picturesque. From the fort walls you can look out for miles across Lake Champlain and the mountains beyond. There are plenty of places for weary tourists to sit and take it all in. This waterway was once a major military chokepoint for ships traveling from Canada, which was held by the French in the mid-18th century, down into northern New England, which was of course British. So it played a role in the French and Indian War (where the French and Native Americans fought the British), and was part of another five battles in history as well. Minutemen from the American Revolutionary War raided the fort to steal its cannons for George Washington, playing a decisive role in the eventual American victory. Think of fighting a war today against an enemy who has aircraft, and you have none. It leaves you defenseless. The Minutemen needed those cannon to project power and to protect against projected power.
Start with the main fort tour. Although a third of the original fort was destroyed or fell into decay, so much of what you’re seeing is a replica, they’ve purchased real historic cannons from all over the western world, and have a museum and education center. They make up for the rest with tours of history that are full of humor and adventure. Stories form the past are powerfully told by great actors, and may bring tears to your eyes. It’s well thought-out and engaging enough for kids who just want to be entertained, and for adults who want to learn something.
The main tour ends with a summary of all the activities happening that day. It’s remarkably well curated, with signs so you cannot get lost. There’s even a Fort Ticonderoga mobile app with a map, although I read a review that it may no longer be supported. Of course you can rent space at the fort for a wedding or corporate function.
In the fort, you’ll also find 10,000 square foot museum with one of the finest collections in the world of early modern era military items, including weapons, prints, uniforms, many of which have been cataloged with photos in an online database. You’ll learn about the old-time practice of medicine, dioramas of battles, and an interactive artillery “laboratory” where you can try loading a cannon yourself.
Fort Ticonderoga’s grounds are so vast that you will want to drive. (Or follow the fife and drum parade to the King’s Gardens, a long walk. Driving through the estate, we spotted a deer!)
The corn maze, open August to, is broken up into sections that take you out into the maze and then back again. So it’s easy to leave the maze if you tire of it. It takes some 45 minutes to explore the entire thing. It’s remarkably tall, so you won’t get long views, and there are no dioramas in the corn maze, but you’ll find signposts with clues to send you left or right, and they give you a map and a marker, and a game of collecting stamps. It’s all natural, lined with hay bales in an attractive area, and a little gift shop with a portable toilet.
Next door, find The King’s Garden, which smells so great that you will follow your nose in on tip toes. The original plan in the 1920s was inspired by 18th-century military gardens, and the restored in 2001. It’s beautiful in August, with everything seeming to be in bloom. We discovered a flower arranging class, a children’s workshop. Flowers are decoratively laid out between brick pathways, grass, a fountain, and trees giving shade. It’s just lovely to stroll around. They have cows, horses, and a greenhouse where they grow broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, potatoes, butternut squash, and other vegetables, farm-to-table for their restaurant.
Earlier in the year you’ll see peonies and irises, which are also very fragrant, and then lilies. When we visited in August, the garden was full of zinnias, vibrant with color and great variety. You’ll find black-eyed susans and sunflowers, amaranths, snapdragons, and cup plants, which have a cup-like shape that holds water when it rains.
Upon admission, they give you a coin that gives you admission to nearby Mount Defiance, a 10-minute drive away, which is worth visiting. Its peak has a picnic area with a few tables, some curated displays, and great views from all sides. Try to ignore the modern cell tower and the weather station!
They fly an American flag and have cannons on display. We also attended an evening program meant to showcase old-time cannon and muskets. It was fascinating, but too dark to properly read the markings forged into the cannon. It was exciting to see them fire the cannon and guns!
Of course the main visitors center has a cute gift shop, with old timey decorations, mugs, post cards, jewelry, posters, books, t-shirts. We visited the restaurant, America’s Fort Café. It’s cute, a log cabin of dark wood decorated with Americana. Tablecloths come printed with newspaper articles and photos from history. There’s a nice breeze coming off the lake, and you can really smell the forest. It’s such a wonderful smell. You feel like you’re embraced by nature in the cafe, and get great views of Lake Champlain. Restrooms in the basement are campground quality.
The menu is influenced by New York and history. For example, the Log House Classic is a 1920s delicacy, chicken bites with buffalo sauce, maple syrup, and a waffle cone. Surprisingly, the chicken nuggets work well with the syrup. It’s delicious and sweet, with maple syrup. You must have the lemonade, which seems naturally made from real lemons, tart and powerful. We didn’t think much of the cheese fries, which got cold quickly and seemed to have a low quality, movie theater type Velveeta cheese.
Being so close to Buffalo, New York, we had to try the Buffalo chicken wings with blue cheese. The Buffalo sauce was heavy, but it’s not so greasy that you can’t stand it. (I’ve had over sauced Buffalo wings that I don’t want to eat.) They’re served with celery and carrots, nice to take the oils off of your teeth. They are toothbrushes in vegetable form.
We ordered sandwiches, which came decoratively presented, with a little fresh flower. We tried the Champlain Monster Melt, a sourdough bread that is grilled and a bit rich, presumably buttered. The tuna melt has a great consistency to it. It’s very smooth, like a spread, although it seemed homemade. We also tried America’s Fort, a classic BLT, it’s a single slice of tomato and a single slice lettuce, and not loaded with bacon, making it overpowered by the bread.
They offer Americana type desserts such as a lemon merengue pie. We tried the apple pie with vanilla ice cream. The pie wasn’t heated, but the apples were soft and smooth, well-cooked but not limp. The strawberry shortcake reminded me of home, a really light and airy biscuit that’s soft, with strawberries whose juices run into the shortcake, and whipped cream.
If you’re having a light lunch, consider taking it to go onto the Carillon, the boat tour, which leaves from the King’s Garden out onto Lake Champlain. It’s a small lake boat with open sides and seating for 45 with tables. On board, they serve Pepsi products, beers from the Adirondack Brewery, a variety of chips, sandwiches, and wines. On a day with hot sunlight, we were glad to find plenty of seating in the shade. The breeze and rumbling of the boat are pleasant and soothing. Part of the tour is a narrated history of the region, making history interesting and accessible. So you’ll learn a lot, but at 90-minute the tour took too long when what you are seeing is mainly water.
We were grateful to be able to interview Stuart Lilie, Vice President of Public History & Operations at Fort Ticonderoga.
Events INSIDER: So the fort just is a reconstruction?
Stuart Lilie: It’s a reconstruction, but it was two-thirds intact, and rebuilt in many cases using original stone or using stone that was still in place.
Events INSIDER: How could you tell what it looked like?
Stuart Lilie: We’ve got paintings from the 19th century, when people were actually drawing beautiful landscapes here. They also drew the ruins of the fort when they were less ruinous. We’ve also got what were engineers’ plans for how different buildings were supposed to be done. Militaries write everything down, and a lot of those documents survive to this present day. So we’ve got, in many sections of the fort, a pretty good understanding of how it looked at different times.
Events INSIDER: It certainly feels authentic! What do you tell people considering coming here?
Stuart Lilie: We offer not only an incredible historic site with six great battles, with 25 years of military occupation, and one of this nation’s first preservation and reconstruction efforts. We also offer an incredible multi-day experience that includes our King’s Garden, which has the layers of our story played out through horticulture. We’ve got boat cruises, where you get to see the layers of our story from the water. We’ve got our brand new maritime trades [ meaning they show old timey maritime occupations (tradecraft), including carpentry, shoemaking, musket maintenance, and shipbuilding].
Stuart Lilie: We do everything from repairing and re-caulking period boats to building brand new ones through our maritime laboratory. Kids can come and explore on hands-on crafts activities, and we have our wonderful café that actually uses produce that we grow right here on site. We offer a program called To Act As One United Body, where kids get to learn the same marching and drill that the Revolutionary War soldiers practiced here and live what it was like to stay here inside the barracks.
Events INSIDER: Do you host historic reenactments, where people dress up and camp here?
Stuart Lilie: The third weekend in July, we always have our big summer reenactment. It goes back and forth between portraying the 1777 siege of Ticonderoga and the 1758 battle of Ticonderoga. We end up with between three and five hundred reenactors keeping the French and the British separate or the British and Americans separate, depending on which scenario. We have some of the best reenactment story telling out there. It’s not just about the muskets and the tents. It’s about bringing folks in for an immersive experience where they follow along with the story and get to learn an awful lot. At the same time you have the scale and spectacle of the [re-enacted, in uniform] battle before them.
Events INSIDER: Thank you.
Even though much of Fort Ticonderoga is partly a replica, so much passion and love have been invested here. I don’t know about multi-day, but you can easily spend a full day here, and make sure to see their busy calendar of special events as well. It’s an easy 5 stars for Fort Ticonderoga.