Slayton: Mount Independence Ghosts

Aug 17, 2017

Our heroic Revolutionary War heritage sleeps quietly at Mount Independence. But the Mount, a point that thrusts north into Lake Champlain opposite Fort Ticonderoga, has important, dramatic stories to tell.

In Seventeen Seventy Six, twelve thousand men built a massive complex of fortifications here: a star-shaped fort, stone barracks, a hospital, and on every side, gun emplacements bristling with cannon. Those battlements all had one purpose — defense. One hundred forty years ago, Mount Independence was the strong point of American opposition to the British invasion they knew was about to sweep down Lake Champlain from Canada.

That October, the fortifications on the Mount literally scared the British back up the lake to Canada. And that victory gave the fledgling American nation a precious year to build and strengthen. One year later, the British came back and forced the abandonment of the Mount — a maneuver that paradoxically led to spectacular American victories at Bennington and Saratoga.

In between those epic stories is a harder, crueler tale: the details of the bitter winter when Mount Independence became the Valley Forge of the North, and dozens of men died of sickness or froze to death. It’s all here in layers and heaps among the tumbled stones. It’s part of our heritage as Vermonters and Americans.

And it’s still being discovered by volunteers, archaeologists, and the state Division for Historic Preservation — sometimes using strikingly modern technological methods.

Electronic LIDAR mapping, which wipes away surface vegetation to reveal unseen patterns in the stones and soil beneath, is one such method. Flights over the Mount by bat-like GPS-bearing drones are another. But sometimes, it’s just good old-fashioned shoe leather and sharp eyes. Teams of volunteers crisscross the rough terrain annually, noting what they see.

Historic sites regional administrator Elsa Gilbertson says that every year they discover 40 or more new points of interest. Every finding tells them more about the people who lived and died here.

Sometimes a simple change in the direction of the light will reveal a new feature - like a patch of goldenrods growing in a perfect square, or a pile of stones leading to a new discovery.

As we walked through the sunlit forest, a series of ancient gun emplacements appeared like ghosts.

“Some days you can see them and some days you can’t,” Gilbertson said. “It depends on the light.”