September 6, 2023 in New York

The Storied History of New York’s Glittering Lake George

Early History

The Lake George region has a long history of human habitation. Archaeological evidence indicates the area was inhabited by Native Americans as far back as 10,000 years ago.

The Mohican tribe were among the first Native Americans to live around Lake George. They were later driven out by the warlike Mohawk nation, who were part of the Iroquois Confederacy.

The Iroquois Confederacy (also known as the Haudenosaunee) was a powerful alliance between six Native American tribes in the northeastern woodlands. The Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora tribes joined together to form the confederacy sometime between 1450 and 1600.

Lake George and the surrounding lands were an important area for the Iroquois tribes. They fished the waters, hunted game in the forests, and often traveled through the Lake George valley, which was an important north-south trade route.

While the Native Americans lived around Lake George for thousands of years, the first European contact came much later in the 17th century when French explorers arrived in the region.

French Expedition

In 1609, French explorer Samuel de Champlain became the first European to see the lake on an expedition south from the French settlements in Quebec. Champlain was part of an expedition led by his friend, Sieur de Monts, that was charged with exploring the territory of New France, the area that is now eastern Canada and parts of New England in the United States.

As part of this expedition, Champlain set out in a small boat to explore south of Quebec along the Richelieu River and the Lake St. Sacrement, as Lake George was then known. He recorded seeing the “lake of war” as he called it, referring to the Iroquois tribes that inhabited the region. Champlain noted the stunning natural beauty of the 30 mile long glacial lake in the Adirondack Mountains.

This was the start of French interest and influence in the Lake George area that would last until the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, when the area came under British control. But Champlain’s voyage stands as the first recorded European sighting of Lake George and exploration of the surrounding area.

French and Indian War

The French and Indian War played a pivotal role in Lake George’s history in the mid-18th century. Lake George was the site of important battles between British and French forces.

In 1755, British General William Johnson led an expedition to capture Fort St. Frederic on Lake Champlain. On September 8, 1755, Johnson’s forces were ambushed by the French near the south end of Lake George at Bloody Morning Scout.

The Battle of Lake George was fought on September 8, 1755 with Johnson’s forces defeating the French. This was one of the first battles of the French and Indian War. While the British claimed victory, their casualties were significant.

Fort William Henry was constructed in 1755 on the southern shore of Lake George to secure British control of the area. It was named for Prince William Henry, the younger brother of King George II. Fort William Henry became a primary target of French forces.

In August 1757, the French conducted a siege of Fort William Henry with their Native American allies. After several days of bombardment, the British surrendered Fort William Henry on August 9, 1757. This event is portrayed in James Fenimore Cooper’s classic novel, The Last of the Mohicans.

The fallen fort was rebuilt by the British in 1758 when General James Abercrombie launched a campaign to capture Fort Carillon on Lake Champlain. Control of Lake George played a vital role during the French and Indian War campaigns between England and France.

American Revolution

During the American Revolution, Lake George served as an important strategic military base for the Continental Army. Its location along a key overland route between New York City and Montreal made it a crucial area for controlling the movement of British troops.

The lake became a major site of shipbuilding to supply the American war effort. A shipyard was constructed at the south end of the lake in 1776, which produced over 20 naval vessels including Liberty, a 25-gun sloop. These “Lake George ships” were used for transport, protection of supply lines, and engagements with the British fleet on the lake.

Several notable Revolutionary War battles also occurred around Lake George. In 1775, the Battle of Fort Ticonderoga resulted in an early American victory when Ethan Allen led the Green Mountain Boys to capture the fort from the British. Then in 1777, British forces under General John Burgoyne launched an invasion south from Canada. American defenders made a valiant stand against them at battles near the southern end of Lake George, slowing the British advance. Although Burgoyne’s troops ultimately continued on to Saratoga, the fierce combat around Lake George was a vital contribution to thwarting the British campaign.

19th Century Tourism

In the early 19th century, Lake George began to develop into a popular tourist destination. The beautiful natural scenery and cool climate during the summer months attracted visitors from New York City and other urban areas. Luxury resort hotels were constructed along the shores of the lake to cater to these tourists.

The first hotel was built in 1810, but the boom in Lake George tourism really took off with the introduction of steamboats on the lake. In 1817, James Caldwell launched the first steamboat, the James Caldwell, allowing access to previously unreachable areas of the lake. Throughout the mid-1800s, larger and more luxurious steamboats were built to ferry tourists around Lake George. The steamboats opened up new sites for grand hotels and allowed day trippers to enjoy scenic cruises.

Improved transportation links also contributed to the rise in tourism. In the 1850s, railroads were built connecting Lake George to New York City, Boston, Montreal and other major urban hubs. Trains delivered vacationers directly to the lake’s shores. During peak seasons, thousands of tourists arrived daily by rail to enjoy the fashionable Lake George hotels and natural beauty.

By the late 1800s, Lake George had firmly established itself as a premier vacation spot, with lavish hotels, daily steamboat tours, and convenient railroad access. The natural scenery and cool climate continued drawing urbanites seeking an escape from the summer heat.

20th Century Tourism

The early 20th century brought enormous changes to Lake George as the automobile became more widely available. The automobile allowed tourists to easily reach Lake George, which had previously been accessed mainly by railroad and steamboat.

Motels began springing up along the shores of Lake George to accommodate these auto tourists. Prior to this, most visitors had stayed at grand lakeside resorts. The motels offered an affordable and casual atmosphere that appealed to middle-class families traveling by car.

Lake George also saw the rise of new amusements and attractions in the 20th century. In 1952, the area’s first theme park, Gaslight Village, opened offering rides, shops, shows, and other entertainment. Storytown USA, another theme park, opened in the 1950s as well. Roller coasters, go-karts, mini-golf, arcades, and more drew families looking for thrilling fun.

The 20th century brought accessibility and affordability to Lake George through the automobile. Motels and amusements transformed the tourism industry and opened the lake to many more visitors. Lake George became a major vacation destination in New York and the broader northeast region.

Environmental Protection

Lake George is renowned for its clear waters and natural beauty. However, maintaining the ecological integrity of the lake in the face of development and tourism has been an ongoing challenge.

Water Quality

Protecting the water quality of Lake George has long been a priority. In 1885, the state legislature passed a law prohibiting the discharge of sewage into the lake. Since then, sewage treatment regulation and facilities have expanded around the lake. Other efforts include stormwater management, erosion controls, and public education programs to reduce fertilizer runoff.

Invasive species like Eurasian watermilfoil and zebra mussels have also threatened the lake’s ecosystem. Ongoing efforts to control and manage invasive species include hand-harvesting, benthic mats, suction harvesting, and limited herbicide application.

Regulations

Environmental regulations help protect Lake George from overdevelopment and pollution. Zoning ordinances, stormwater rules, septic system policies, and wetlands protections regulate construction around the lake. The Lake George Park Commission oversees development and manages public lands. Conservation easements also preserve undeveloped shoreline.

Overall, committed efforts by local residents, government agencies, and environmental groups have helped maintain the high water quality and ecological integrity that makes Lake George such a treasured natural resource. Continued vigilance and science-based policies will be needed to protect the lake for future generations.

Historic Sites

Lake George has a rich history dating back to the colonial era, as evidenced by the many historic sites and attractions around the lake today. Some of the most notable historic sites related to the lake’s history are:

Forts

  • Fort William Henry – This fort was built by the British during the French and Indian War in 1755. It was the site of a notorious massacre when the fort surrendered to the French in 1757. Today, a replica of the fort stands as a living museum where visitors can experience what life was like in the 18th century British army.
  • Fort Ticonderoga – Located just north of Lake George, this fort also played an important role in the French and Indian War. It was captured by Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys in 1775 at the start of the American Revolution. Now a National Historic Landmark, Fort Ticonderoga offers interactive tours and historical reenactments.

Shipwrecks

  • The Land Tortoise – Built in 1758, this British radeau (floating fortress) sank near the southern end of Lake George in 1758. Designated a National Historic Landmark, the extremely well-preserved wreck is periodically open for diving.
  • The Steamboat Horicon – Launched in 1841, the Horicon carried passengers on Lake George until a fire destroyed it in 1909. Its wreck was located in 2015 and has become an interesting dive site.

Museums

  • The Lake George Historical Association Museum houses a collection of artifacts and displays illuminating the history of the lake region from pre-colonial times to the present day.
  • The Fort William Henry Museum features exhibits on 18th century colonial life and the French and Indian War, including archaeological artifacts recovered from the fort grounds.
  • The Lake George Shipwrecks and Sunken History Museum highlights the lake’s underwater heritage through artifacts, ship models, and multimedia displays.

Recreation

Lake George, NY offers a wide variety of recreational activities for tourists and local residents year-round. Located in the Adirondack Mountains, Lake George is surrounded by over 2.6 million acres of publicly protected land as part of the Adirondack Park. The lake itself offers visitors over 170 islands, coves and beaches for boating, swimming, fishing and water sports.

Boating is one of the most popular summer activities with numerous marinas, boat launches and boat tour companies located around the lake. Visitors can rent motor boats, kayaks, canoes, paddle boards and sailboats to explore the lake. The Lake George Steamboat Company offers narrated cruises touring the lake’s islands and historic sites. The Lake George Association’s Boating Safety Program promotes safe and responsible boating practices.

Hiking and exploring the Adirondack Park’s diverse trails and vistas is another favorite way to experience the beauty of Lake George. Popular nearby hikes include Prospect Mountain, Sleeping Beauty Mountain and Tongue Mountain. Sections of the Northville-Placid Trail and past sites from the French and Indian War can be explored along the trails.

Camping is abundant with over a dozen campgrounds situated right along the Lake George shoreline as well as numerous backcountry camping sites within the surrounding state forests and wilderness areas. Campers will find tent sites, RV sites and lean-tos for an authentic Adirondack camping experience.

With so many natural recreational opportunities, it’s clear why Lake George and its surroundings in the Adirondack Park have become such a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers.

Modern Economy

The Lake George region has a thriving tourism-based economy. Over 2 million visitors come to the area each year, supporting a robust hospitality and recreation industry. Major attractions like Six Flags Great Escape theme park and the Adirondack Balloon Festival draw large crowds. There are also over 200 lodging establishments in the vicinity to accommodate tourists, from hotels and motels to bed & breakfast inns, cabins, and campgrounds. The lake is a hub for outdoor activities like boating, fishing, hiking, and swimming.

Second home ownership has also contributed to the area’s economy. Wealthy families, especially from downstate New York and New England, have built summer homes along the lake for over a century. About 40% of the properties around the lake are now second homes or investment properties. This provides an ongoing stream of consumer spending and construction activity in the region.

Other major sectors include health care, retail, education, construction and professional services. Two hospitals and various medical offices employ thousands of residents. Numerous restaurants, shops and national retail chains serve both visitors and locals. SUNY Adirondack Community College and various public and private K-12 schools provide education opportunities. Financial services, real estate agencies, law firms and other professional services support both businesses and consumers. Overall, Lake George benefits from diverse economic drivers rooted in its natural beauty and rich history.




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