Thursday, November 12, 2009

Books, Whitehall, and the Birth of the U.S. Navy

More Boats, Fewer Books

After a lengthy journey around the islands of Lake Champlain and other northerly hinterlands of Northwestern Vermont, a journey that was plump with sightings and visitations of bookish things, I entered into a new land, my home state of New York. A state, which on this fine day, proved to have a paucity of books in this new and curiously historical locale. For many, this is but another little small town in our greater, expansive American landscape, which has had its moments of economic and industrial success; for others, though, it rings with an historical distinction that should not and cannot be ignored. You see, though a good portion of the downtown area appears to be suffering from the financial swings of our most fickle national and local economies, there is a veritable wealth of colonial narrative to be found on these shores of the Champlain canal system.

This land, as we had seen back in our visit to Ticonderoga (and like Ticonderoga itself), is situated in the interesting space between Lake George and Lake Champlain. It was, strategically, an important place during the French and Indian War, though more significantly, during the late colonial period and the Revolutionary War itself. Whitehall had been called Skenesborough (as you can see from the front of the Maritime Museum below), after a British man named Philip Skene, who had acquired the property in a land grant in the late 1750s. But the real claim to fame came when in 1774, Benedict Arnold, of "Benedict Arnold" fame, performed an act, which perhaps did not so much transform the soon-to-be nascent United States armed forces, than mobilize a cultural memory into the American lexicon of legend and lore. (Benedict Arnold seems to be remembered only for his treasonous actions, such that if you ask any kid or even grown-ups these days, they likely can't tell you what else he did).

This said, what Arnold did was perhaps miraculous at the time: along with Philip Schuyler (of Schuylerville fame), he constructed a variety of river/lake-craft, which would be used to do battle with the British at the not too far Valcour Island, in Lake Champlain. On October 11, 1776, the Battle of Valcour Island took place. The Colonialist side was vastly overpowered and outnumbered, but they were able to stall the southern bound movements of the British forces under Guy Carleton (First Baron Dorchester) and Captain (Later Vice-Admiral) Thomas Pringle. So finally, you may ask, what did Mr. Arnold really do here?

The claim is that the United States Navy was born here, because of the efforts of Arnold and Schuyler: building boats, watercraft to combat the oncoming enemy, the British. This is surely a paradox, though more precisely ironic, that the person, who is most associated with treason (not just during the Revolutionary War, but in the collective American ethos of the bifurcated patriot-traitor notion), was also responsible for building our first naval vessels, and commanding our first naval battle! Ah, what a shocking revelation to so many of us! It turns out that so many of the books written about Benedict Arnold, since the 1830s (biographies, most of them), have dwelled so heavily upon the traitorous actions of Arnold, that almost nothing else seems to be remembered. Some accounts focus on Arnold's treason as something he learned in his childhood, while others have lifted his actions and grafted them onto Civil War Confederate notables--cartoons during and after the American Civil War depicted Jefferson Davis and Benedict Arnold together, one in particular shows them dancing around a cauldron with the devil!

So, by now you may all be asking: "so where are the books!?" Yes, I know. I hoped not to mislead you, of course! Whitehall's museum was closed--in fact, it had closed just minutes before my arrival. The photo above shows the entryway with some books (notably the sign-in book), and a few others scattered around. I must admit that this may be the posting with the fewest actual book sightings! So, I will have to make up grandly for this paucity, surely! Now, there was this boat, the Lois McLure, which appears to have originated in Burlington, Vermont--one of our own recent biblio-stops. Even though we weren't allowed to board, there were some biblio-items on board; I just couldn't get a good vantage point to snap a photo for all of you. This was one of many boats that had been docked along the wharf of the Skenesborough Museum. There were a few people standing around talking to the captain and owner of the Lois McClure, another couple of tourists.

I tried not to gawk too much at the fine vessel, so I simply scanned it, admiring its finesse and the craftsmanship that was put into building it. Right next to the Lois McClure was this historical marker recounting the same historical events about Benedict Arnold, with some additional flavor and detail. Perhaps, if I'd been on time for the operational hours of the museum, I would have been able to show you more detail regarding maritime books and boat building. But by now, you good readers may be simply tired of all this boat talk. The problem is that there are so many "boaty" objects and places out there, which hold some interest to our histories. And a great deal has been written about these things.

Just south of the museum was the carcass of a sunken boat that had been raised a half a century ago: the USS Ticonderoga, as you can read from the sign, was a steamer that had been built at Vergennes (the town in Vermont, where my friends live), and was later converted to a "warsloop." Indeed, "warsloop" is not a word you hear every day, nor does it sound that imposing. It sounds more like the sound a Dutch colonist made, while drafting a spoonful of chowder!

Adjacent to the old "warsloop" Ticonderoga, was a warming house and administrative office for the Canal System. I went in, though the offices were closed. These two images above are from that facility. And as you can see, the folks of Whitehall take their claim to historical fame seriously. You'd think that "founding a navy" is the stuff that "heroes are made of" (a phrase I find overused), so it must have been a little complicated for the ad-men of Whitehall! Nevertheless, this is the appeal of this little town. And so, I spent my short amount of time, passing through, snapping a few shots, and wondering "what book encounters could have been!" It wasn't for nothing, of course. Where there are books, there is likely some history; and where there is history, there are almost certainly books--even if we didn't see many of them today. I drove away from Whitehall, hoping that my next visit would afford me entrance into its canal-side museum, and more importantly, its book culture. Not too far south from the birthplace of the U.S. Navy, while driving through another small town, I came across the Washington County Historical Society. I pulled over and snapped this photo for you all to see. Looking back at this picture and the sign in front of the old house, and thinking about where I'd visited on this trip, I thought that one of the words on this sign summed it all up, all the history and culture and stories of our national narratives: "heritage." It's not a word we utilize that much these days, except in terms of hiking trails (e.g. "the heritage trail") or for the cheese-ball lingo of politics and Hollywood. But the truth is, "heritage" is an important word. It conveys a sense of pride in one's place, one's home, and effectively in who we are and where we've come from. It also speaks to a sense of responsibility--the responsibility of carrying some torch of our past, to educate us in our present, and prepare for our children's futures.

No comments:

Post a Comment