Lee’s Ferry

Here at Exploring Off the Beaten Path, our favorite activity is a road trip with no particular destination in mind. Roaming and exploring are the journey. We’ve stumbled upon lots of great places we didn’t know about. This is one of them – Lee’s Ferry, the river gateway to the Grand Canyon.

**AUTHOR’S NOTE: For our readers outside the United states, here’s a miles to kilometer converter. We Yanks don’t do metric very well.

Lee's Ferry

A beautiful downstream view of Lee’s Ferry. The 2,000 foot Vermilion Cliffs tower in the background. These flat, accessible banks are the result of three canyons and two rivers coming together. Marble Canyon, Glen Canyon and the Grand Canyon converge in this area. The Colorado joins with the Paria River, which flows out of Marble Canyon from the north. That accident of geology created a river bottom with access to both banks. This is the official geological start of the Grand Canyon – Mile 0. Click on the following link for a bigger and more gorgeous photo.

The Grand Canyon needs no introduction. One of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, it’s a source of awe and beauty for millions of people every year. The canyon, which can easily be seen from space, is around 270 miles long, up to 18 miles wide and averages over a mile in depth.

Imbedded in the culture, history and geology of the Grand Canyon is the Colorado River. From its source at La Poudre Lake, 40 miles west of Fort Collins, CO, it flows 1,450 miles to the Gulf of Baja in Mexico. It runs the entire length of the Grand Canyon. Fifteen miles upstream northeast of the Grand Canyon is Glen Canyon, which is also the name of the dam that was built there across the Colorado River from 1956 to 1966. Behind it is Lake Powell, which turns the Colorado River into a 200 mile long reservoir.

There’s no way to cross the Grand Canyon unless you include walking from one rim all the way to the bottom and up to the other rim, a minimum of 20 miles along steep narrow trails. Otherwise, you have to go around it. That geographical fact of life affected anybody who ever moved through the region and continues to this day. No matter which route you take, at some point, you have to cross the Colorado River

Crossing of the Fathers in 1949

From the Utah Historical Society, a photo of the Crossing of the Fathers in 1949. The view is looking downstream, with Lee’s Ferry about 20 miles away. The jeep and observers were with the National Geographic Society. The yellow line shows the actual crossing site. This entire area is now under several hundred feet of water in the Padre Bay region of Lake Powell. The lake formed behind the Glen Canyon Dam. The dam was built between 1956 and 1966. Lake Powell wasn’t considered “filled” until 1980.

If you hike rim to rim, you’ll walk across the 440 foot Black Suspension Bridge. If you go around, you can drive on Highway 89 across the Navajo Bridge. Prior to 1928, you had to float across. For 300 miles both upstream and downstream, there’s only one place where you can do that – Lee’s Ferry.

** HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE: Prior to the mid-1950’s, there was one other crossing – the Crossing of the Fathers – about 20 miles upstream. It was named after two Franciscan priests who explored the area around the time of the American Revolution. Native Americans used it for centuries and called it the Ute Crossing. Shifting sandbars formed during periods of low water allowing foot traffic and livestock to pick their way across. With steep stony banks, it wasn’t suitable for wagons and commerce. It was also seasonal and weather dependent. The crossing became untenable when the water was high. **

During the centuries that the Ute Crossing was used, the site that would become Lee’s Ferry was just sitting there. The Indians certainly knew about it. They just had no use for it. The water here is deeper and the currents treacherous. You can’t walk across it at any time. You have to float and they never developed that capability. So the future ferry site waited for somebody to come along who recognized its unique potential and found a way to utilize it.

Leer's Ferry in its heyday

The upper crossing site in its heyday around 1910. Note the cable system, which was installed in 1899. The vantage point of this photo is the same as the color photo at the top of the post. Click on the link for a bigger and clearer photo. It’s awesome.

That somebody was a remarkable man named Jacob Hamblin. He was a devout Mormon, one of the original pioneers who migrated to Utah in 1846-47. He was part scout, part explorer and part missionary. Hamblin was Brigham Young’s chief emissary to the Native American tribes and was quite successful. He spoke their languages and the Indians trusted him. When there was trouble or unrest, he got the call. For 30 years – from the late 1840’s to the late 1870’s – Jacob Hamblin roamed the rugged areas of southern Utah and northern Arizona on both sides of the Grand Canyon. He was a key figure in the opening and settlement of those areas. Several of his journeys took him south of the Colorado River into Navajo and Hopi territory. To get there, they used the Ute Crossing.

The Great Mormon Migration is part of the history of the West. Between 1846 and 1870, almost 70,000 Mormons headed to the Salt Lake Valley. The Mormons made no secret of their plans to expand their new home land. They were always looking for land, trade partners, converts and routes to get to them. Jacob Hamblin figured prominently in those efforts. The original migration route came in from Fort Bridger, Wyoming in the north and expansion moved south. A southern corridor was needed to more easily approach the land north and south of the Grand Canyon. The Ute Crossing was only suitable for foot traffic. Additionally, it was a tough 40 mile hike to get there. As a commerce and settlement route, it held little potential. Sooner or later, the Colorado River would have to be dealt with.

** HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE: In 1978, the National Park Service established the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail to preserve the route taken by the Mormon migration.**

Historic stone buildings at Lee's Ferry.

Two of the several buildings you’ll see on the walking tour. On the left is the office of Charles Spencer’s American Placer Co. This gold mining venture constructed eight buildings total, including a dining hall and three bunkhouses. One of the bunkhouses is still standing. On the right is Lee’s Ferry fort, built in 1874 to defend against Indian attacks which never happened. Later, it was used as a trading post, school and dining hall. The Echo Cliffs, from which Jacob Hamblin first saw this site, are in the background.

Jacob Hamblin got his first view of the ferry site in 1858 on a mission to the Hopi nation south of the river. He saw it from the top of the Echo Cliffs 1,000 feet above the site on the trail to the Ute Crossing. Its potential was immediately obvious to him. This was the north-south link they had been looking for. He visited several more times in the next few years, including at least one aborted crossing attempt. Finally, in October 1864, he crossed the river with men, horses and equipment on a raft, then turned around and came back. It became known as the Mormon Crossing. The site was a reality, but not ready for prime time just yet. There was work to do.

The ferry site needed a lot of development. The river banks had to be graded and stabilized to allow traffic to roll on and roll off the ferries. Roads were needed on both sides for wagons to access the site along with solid boats big enough to carry them across. Ferry boat operators had to be trained. Wharfs had to be built. The Colorado River was relentless and unpredictable. For the entire operational life of the ferry, boats capsized, material was lost and people drowned. There were times when the ferry was closed for weeks. That work would have to wait, though. The year after Hamblin’s first crossing, a brutal Indian war broke out pitting Mormons against the Navajo and Utes.

Trail to the upper crossing site

The trail to the upper crossing site on the walking tour. Total distance one way is about .8 miles. This is the same trail used by crossers to get to/from the boat ramp and is quite rugged in several places. The buildings in the above photo are behind you right here and the wreck of the Spencer is to your right. If you’re feeling adventurous, the Spencer Trail, which takes you to the top of Echo Cliffs, veers off to the left just ahead. It’s steep and treacherous and not maintained by the NPS.

From 1865 to 1872, hostilities with the Indians turned the Mormon settlements inside out. Over 150 skirmishes and battles were recorded. Dozens of Mormons were killed. The northern Arizona frontier was abandoned and the isolated ferry site became too dangerous. Activity at the ferry during those years was intermittent and unorganized. The Mormon Church laid claim to the crossing site. They knew it could open up northern Arizona to settlers, trade and exploration in both directions. When it was safe to do so, it needed a full-time ferry master to live on site and get it running. In 1872, the man who would put the Lee in Lee’s Ferry reluctantly took charge of the operation – John Doyle Lee.

Lee was a study in contrasts. He was fanatical in his Mormon faith but was excommunicated from the church. He had 19 wives over the course of his life. He was still married to five of them when he took the ferry posting. Two of them came to the ferry with him. He first saw the site in 1870 with Brigham Young and said he would never live or bring a family there. He was friends with some of the key people of his time, including Brigham Young, Jacob Hamblin and river runner John Wesley Powell. With manpower from the church, he built/carved approach routes (called dugways) on both sides of the river. One of them – Lee’s Backbone – was so narrow, steep and treacherous that it was as dangerous as the river crossing.

Wagons on Lee's Backbone

Wagons on Lee’s Backbone circa 1910. This treacherous dugway was the only way in or out of the upper crossing site and was one of the main reasons why the lower site was established in 1899.

He was also a fugitive from justice. The federal government charged him with murder for his part in the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre and had been pursuing him ever since. The Utah Territory was a good place to hide, but when the army started closing in on him, Brigham Young suggested he reconsider the ferry site posting. Lee took it and extended his freedom by a few more years. During that time, he developed it into a major transportation hub. Even though the site was called Mormon Crossing, he dubbed it Lee’s Ferry. The name stuck.

** HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE: The name Lee’s Ferry stuck but the man named Lee didn’t. He was arrested in 1875 while visiting family in Panguitch, UT, tried and executed by firing squad in 1877. His name lives on though. His 19 wives bore him 56 children, who in turn prolifically continued the bloodline. To this day, many prominent people in Utah are direct descendants of John Doyle, including U.S. Senator Mike Lee.**

A photo of Charles Spencer’s mining operation. Water was piped from the river and a steam boiler forced it out like a water cannon to carve away at the surrounding cliffs. There was gold in those hills but it was so fine that it went right through the sifter. It was a mammoth undertaking to get set up here, but it didn’t last long. After two solid years of failure, the operation folded.

The operation continued and grew after Lee’s death. His wife Emma ran the operation until 1879. Lee’s Ferry got its own post office, a trading post and a stone blockhouse for defense against possible Indian attacks. For 54 years – from 1873 to 1927 – a succession of operators and variety of boats transported settlers, missionaries, miners, outlaws, traders and Indians across the river at Lee’s Ferry. Improvements were made constantly, including an alternate crossing just downstream from today’s NPS boat ramp. It was shorter and more easily accessible, avoiding Lee’s Backbone. At first, the ferry boats were rowed. Later, cables were strung and anchored on both sides for pulling the boats across with the current doing most of the work. During its service life the ferry went from Indian raids to transporting tourists in them there newfangled automobiles. During that time, a wide variety of characters and scoundrels passed through Lee’s Ferry. Then, in 1889, gold was discovered in the Colorado Basin. Lee’s Ferry became a vital and busy link on the road to riches.

**HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE: The ferry ride wasn’t free. This was a money making operation for the Mormon church. John Doyle Lee’s first ferry customer was on April 22, 1873 – two wagons and 33 horses. He charged three dollars per wagon and 75 cents per horse. People and luggage were free. It took two days. When the ferry was busy and the river cooperated, operations went around the clock. Fares were often negotiated and depended on a variety of factors. The amount of material, number of people, river state, boat type and more all figured into the final cost. Most ferry crossings were paid, at least in part, in goods and services. This helped the ferry operators subsist in this isolated, spartan environment. There wasn’t much cash involved. In 1886, the crossing took in $354 for the whole year. $118 went to the church. **

The “Charles H. Spencer” was brought here to haul coal from upstream to the mining operation. It was a good sized boat measuring 70 feet long and 21 feet abeam. The paddlewheel was 12 feet wide and added 15 feet to the total length. The crew of 5 was a pickup team from willing landlubbers working the mine site. When the operation went bust, Spencer walked away leaving everything, including the boat. As the years went by, it was stripped for wood, battered by floods, rotted and eventually settled to the river bottom in about three feet of water. It’s on the walking tour.

Gold brings out dreamers and promoters. One of them was Charles H. Spencer. Spencer was not a carnival barker looking for a quick buck. He was a talented guy who loved challenges, hard work and the outdoors. In 1910, he formed the American Placer Co. and staked a claim right on the ferry site. The plan was to erode the soft sandstone cliffs with high pressure water and sift through the sludge for gold dust. It was a mammoth undertaking with enormous engineering and logistical challenges. To make a long story short, he got everything up and running, but never got any gold. By 1913, it was all over and he walked away, abandoning all equipment and structures. You can still see some of it as part of the walking tour.

One of the more interesting tales from Lee’s Ferry is the shipwreck located here. Spencer’s operation needed coal to run the boilers – and lots of it. The nearest coal was 30 miles upstream at Warm Creek Canyon. Mule teams going back and forth cross country on the Spencer Trail weren’t enough, so Spencer brought in a paddlewheel steamboat. Built in San Francisco, it was disassembled, brought overland to Lee’s Ferry and re-assembled on the river at Warm Creek Canyon. He named it [drum roll] the “Charles H. Spencer”. The plan was to have it push an empty barge upriver and push it back full of coal. This type of paddleboat was designed and built for use on the placid rivers of the San Francisco delta. It turned out to be woefully inadequate to buck the upstream current of the Colorado. The number of round trips it made is not known but was certainly in the single digits.

**HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE: Charles H. Spencer died in 1968 at age of 96. He was a living history book on Lee’s Ferry and provided input to early works and records of the site.**

The underwater remains of the Charles H. Spencer

The wreck site of the “Charles H. Spencer”.

Lee’s Ferry started its final act in 1927. The Navajo Bridge was built to cross the Colorado River across Glen Canyon six miles downstream from the ferry site. Lee’s Ferry was used to transport men, equipment and materials during the construction. Its last run on June 7, 1927 was a disaster. With the bridge nearing completion, three men were crossing on the ferry with some bridge materials. The water was high and swift. It upended the boat and snapped the guide cable. The three men, their material and the ferry boat were lost. Lee’s Ferry was never used again. The construction company instead utilized an 800 mile drive through Needles, CA to end up on the other side of the bridge 834 feet away.

An annotated Google Earth overhead shot of Lee's Ferry

An annotated Google Earth overhead shot of Lee’s Ferry. Click on the following link for a much larger view. The GPS coordinates of the boat ramp are N36.8653 W111.5867. Click on those coordinates for an interactive Google map.

Today, Lee’s Ferry is part of the Glen Canyon National Recreational Area. The ferry site and the Lonely Dell Ranch are National Historic Sites. It’s easy to get to, but not too crowded. If you’re a fan of fishing, rafting, history, exploring, hiking or photography, there is something here for you. If you’re a treasure hunter like us, there are several geocaches at the ferry site and a couple of benchmarks along the river. They are both found in abundance throughout the Glen Canyon area along with a few dozen NPS Passport Stamps. We’ve explored both sides of the Colorado in northern Arizona. Lee’s Ferry was our favorite place. It’s a real hidden gem tucked away in the towering cliffs on the banks of the Colorado and Paria Rivers and definitely off the beaten path.

You might also want to check out our post on Pipe Spring National Monument. It’s about 90 miles away on the road to Zion NP and shares a lot of history with Lee’s Ferry.

Hope you learned something. We sure did.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

Battle of Fort Carillon

The Battlefield

Fort Ticonderoga

Fort Ticonderoga today. This was The Prize. A witness to three wars, it was fatally flawed and compromised the day it became operational. However, the French, the British and the Americans fought over it for half a century. It between wars, it was abandoned and allowed to rot. In those periods, civilians looted it for materials and fuel, to the point where by 1850, there was almost nothing left. The present fort is a complete reconstruction, with few original components. The arrows mark the direction to the Carillon battlefield. The outlines of the French position are still there and clearly visible, along with several monuments that tell the story. **Historical Footnote: Click on the link to see a photo of the decimated fort.**

In northeast upstate New York near the Canadian border are two lakes – Lake George and Lake Champlain. They are long and narrow and form a straight line running north and south. They actually parallel each other for about 20 miles with a narrow strip of land between them. At its narrowest point, the land is only about one swampy mile across. If someone were to fortify that narrow point, they could control the traffic on both lakes. The French, the British and the Americans did just that during the colonial wars of the 18th and 19th centuries. The lake country of upstate New York was a battleground in three wars spanning six decades- the French and Indian War, the American Revolution and the War of 1812. The biggest and bloodiest encounter in all of them was the Battle of Fort Carillon on July 8, 1758. In fact, it was the costliest battle in North America until July 21, 1861, and the Civil War battle of First Manassas.

Lake George forms the southern end of this lake highway. It starts at the town of Lake George, NY. Relatively small and shallow – 32 miles long, 3 miles wide and average depth of 40 feet, it empties from south to north. At the northern end, it flows into the La Chute River, a short and wild waterway that empties into Lake Champlain. The La Chute River wasn’t navigable, so lake traffic had to be portaged overland.

Lake Champlain is the larger by far – 120 miles long, up to 12 miles wide and as much as 400 feet deep. It also empties from south to north into the Richelieu River, which in turn flows into the St Lawrence River just northeast of Montreal. (So if you’re traveling south on the lakes, you’re actually going “up the lake”).

Overhead of Ft Ticonderoga

A Google map overhead view of the Fort Carillon battle area. Mt. Defiance is 700 feet higher than the fort. The straight line distances are quite small. It’s only a mile from Mt. Defiance to the fort, putting it well within artillery range. The fort, which bristled with cannons, would have had a tough time responding to that threat. Shooting uphill changes the firing solution. The fort guns may not have been able to elevate their guns enough to even shoot back. The only real solution would be to occupy and fortify Mt. Defiance to deny its use to the enemy.

This little spit of land between the lakes was one of the most strategic spots on the colonial northern frontier. The northern end of these lakes puts you on the doorstep of Montreal and Quebec. The southern end offers a straight shot to Albany, the Hudson River Valley and New York City. Control of this route gave an attacker from either side a direct route into the heart of enemy territory. In 1755, during the second year of the French and Indian War, the French built a massive fort right on the portage – Fort Carillon. The British later named it after an Iroquois word meaning “the joining of waters” – Ticonderoga.

**Historical Footnote: Soon after the War of 1812, New York began building canals to connect inland waterways with ports on the Atlantic coast and the Great Lakes. The most famous was the Erie Canal. At the same time it was being built, workers were also building the Champlain Canal. This 60 mile long system connected the southern end of Lake Champlain to the Hudson River, completely bypassing Lake George. The Champlain Canal was an economic success and has been in continuous use since it opened in 1817. It carried substantial commercial traffic until the 1970’s. Now its primary users are recreational boaters.The northern end of the canal joins Lake Champlain at Whitehall, NY.**

The Battle

The early years of the French and Indian War went very badly for the British. From 1754 to 1758, they were outfought at every turn. Fort Necessity, Braddock’s Defeat, Grant’s Hill and others were debacles. Additionally, the war was bankrupting the empire and British commanders in North America were often weak and inept. The British government even started questioning the outcome of the war and whether it was worth continuing. **Historical Footnote: Unbeknownst to them, the French were in much worse shape. They were overextended world-wide and dead broke. It eventually cost them the war.**

In 1758, the new Prime Minister, William Pitt, settled that question. With the support of King George, he committed massive forces to defeat the French in North America. Britain embarked on a complex four pronged land and sea campaign. One of the primary strategic objectives was to gain control of the lakes in upstate New York. That would split French forces and cut off their supply routes. It also offered an attack route right to the capitol city of New France – Quebec. But first, they had to take Fort Carillon.

Mt Defiance

This down the barrel view of Fort Carillon/Ticonderoga from Mt. Defiance tells you all you need to know about how vulnerable the massive fort really was. Why did the French even build it here? They probably figured the top of the mountain would always be inaccessible to heavy guns and equipment.

In early July of 1758, 52 year old Major General James Abercrombie had the mission of taking the fort. He had 18,000 men, heavy guns and siege equipment. They faced 4,000 French defenders led by the Marquis de Montcalm, an experienced battle commander. Fort Carillon was an imposing structure but had a fatal flaw. There was high ground overlooking the fort less than a mile away to the southwest – well within artillery range. British engineering and artillery officers did a recon of the area. It was unoccupied, undefended and in perfect position to bombard the fort but a wilderness road would have to be built to get the heavy stuff on top. **Historical Footnote: The French named the high ground Rattlesnake Mountain. The British called it Sugar Loaf. The Americans named it Mt. Defiance. It’s now part of the Fort Ticonderoga Historical Site and can be visited while you’re there.**

A siege and bombardment would have made short work of Carillon and the French commander, the Marquis de Montcalm, knew it. In a gambit to change the odds, he ordered the construction of a strong entrenched position on a hill a half mile northwest of the fort blocking the British route of advance. In this area, there is bedrock right underneath the topsoil, making serious digging impossible. It was a log and dirt wall built up from the surface. In front of it, they felled trees to form abatis, a very effective obstacle to foot movement. They also built redoubts manned with artillery to protect their flanks. It was a very strong position. Out of range of their own guns, they hoped to sucker the British to fight out in the open. At the very least, they could draw some blood before British seige guns forced them to abandon the fort.

**Historical Footnote: Montcalm was a larger than life figure for the French in North America. He led their forces for almost the entire French and Indian War. He racked up victory after victory, usually in the thick of it with his soldiers. His most famous (and notorious) victory was the taking of Fort William Henry at the southern edge of Lake George. The siege, surrender and subsequent massacre were made famous in both the book and movie versions of “The Last of the Mohicans”. His luck ran out on September 14, 1759. He was killed in action on the Plains of Abraham during the fighting for Quebec. He was 47.**

Attack at Carillon

This painting of unknown origin shows the 42nd Highlander Regiment – the famed Black Watch – in action at the French defensive line. In the background, you can see the defensive works of parallel logs. It completely protected the French soldiers from rifle fire. Artillery would have made quick work of it, but Montgomerie didn’t bring any. The abatis of felled trees is vividly depicted. Note the sharpened stakes and the branches piled in between as tanglefoot. Also notice the smoke. Black powder muzzle-loaders produce an incredible amount of acrid, thick, white smoke. After hours of firing, the entire battlefield was probably shrouded in the stuff, with visibility near zero. What you don’t see is French artillery. Unlike Abercrombie, there was a method to their madness. Montcalm was trying to lure the British his way and he figured that charging into cannons would spook them. Also, the construction of the defense wasn’t suited for artillery. It was hastily built over the course of 2 days. They didn’t have time to chop firing apertures and construct firing platforms to hold the guns. They did have cannons on their flanks in case of a British breakthrough. That almost happened around 5:00 PM, when the highlanders somehow made it to the base of the wall. Some were able to clamber over it and fought hand to hand before being driven back by French bayonets.

Abercrombie took the bait – hook, line and sinker. On July 8, in a stunning display of incompetence, he decided to forget the siege, forget the high ground and end it quickly with his overwhelming numerical advantage. Leaving his artillery behind and tossing any semblance of tactics or maneuver out the window, he sent wave after wave of British soldiers across open ground in uncoordinated banzai attacks against the French position. The battle started around 1:00 PM and raged until nightfall. Darkness, exhaustion and soldiers abandoning the field finally forced him to call it off. During that entire time, Montgomerie never got close enough to the battle to see the slaughter.

The French lines today

The outlines of the French positions are still clearly visible today. The trenches are actually berms built up with dirt and not dug into the bedrock. The wooden palisade would have been on top.

The Aftermath

When it was over, almost 3,000 British dead and wounded lay on the battlefield. The decimated British force limped back to their base at the southern end of Lake George, expecting the French to swoop down on them at any minute. The French suffered about 400 casualties, which was 10% of their force – a significant degradation. They had no intentions of pursuing the British. Instead, Montcalm, who had been in the middle of things with his troops, had barrels of wine delivered to the lines while they prepared their defenses for another attack that never came. History was repeating itself. The French still had their fort and the British had yet another military disaster on their hands.

Abercrombie abandoned the Ticonderoga mission but didn’t want to return empty handed. Two hundred miles to the west, where the St. Lawrence River empties into Lake Ontario, was Fort Frontenac. It was an old fort, dating back to 1673 and was lightly defended. It was also the main supply base for the French frontier forts around the Great Lakes and down the Ohio River Valley. Abercrombie sent a force of 3,000 men commanded by Lt. Col. John Bradstreet to capture Fort Frontenac. They attacked on August 26 and the fort surrendered two days later. Bradstreet paroled the defenders, allowing them to walk away. Then the British helped themselves to the warehouses. What they couldn’t carry, they destroyed and with it went the supplies and materials France needed to wage war and trade with the Indians. The seizure and destruction of this supply base did more damage to the French than had been done so far in the whole war.

Carillon battlefield

This is a photo of the killing ground taken from the top of a French trenchline. It would have been completely open. The trees you see are new growth. This was old growth virgin timber at the time of the battle but the area was completely cut down to build fortifications and clear fields of fire. Nobody knows for sure how many British soldiers fell here, but few, if any, were recovered. Their remains are still out there to this day.

**Historical Footnote: Major General James Abercrombie was a one trick pony. His place in history is defined solely by the disaster at Ticonderoga. For his appalling leadership there, he was recalled to England, promoted to Lt. General and became a member of Parliament for 20 years. There he became a leading voice for strong repressive measures against the insolent and ungrateful American colonies. He died at his Scottish estate in April 1781 at age 75 and is buried there.**

The loss at Fort Carillon was a major setback for the British campaign in North America, but it was too important to let go. A year later, it was in the crosshairs again. This time, British General Jeffrey Amherst was in command. His army dragged artillery up to the top of Mt. Defiance. Completely compromised and without a chance of a successful defense, the French quickly abandoned the fort, blowing up or destroying everything they could. The British entered the fort on July 27, 1759 without a shot being fired.

Author’s Comments

The Battle of Fort Carillon was a model find for Off the Beaten Path. It’s what my web page is all about. This was a big battle in a big war that nobody has ever heard of. From the point of view as a webmaster and historian, it’s fascinating. However, viewing it as a retired Marine officer, I find it disturbing and stupid.

War is full of unknowns. Sometimes, luck, weather, happenstance or other seemingly trivial events affect the outcome of a battle. So does stupidity. General Abercrombie did more stupid stuff in a shorter amount of time than probably any battle I’ve ever studied. It’s a classic military axiom that you’ll never have all the things you need to engage in battle, but Abercrombie came close. He had manpower, equipment, weapons, favorable weather, freedom of movement, a weakened opponent and most importantly – time. All he had to do was methodically lay siege to the fort.The French were in no position to mount any resistance except small spoiling attacks – which they did. The fort was untenable. The outcome was never in doubt – until Abercrombie got stupid. The Battle of Fort Carillon was a disaster but it wasn’t a game changer. The war went on and a year later, the fort was taken. A year after that, the French surrendered. The loss of 3,000 British soldiers for absolutely nothing is infuriating along with fact that Abercrombie was never held accountable for anything.

One of the trends throughout the French and Indian War is that the French constantly outfought, outmanuevered and outsmarted the British. The gambit at Carillon to sucker in the British was classic. They were aggressive and proficient in wilderness fighting, something the British never learned. France lost the war and their North American territory because of economics. They were simply overwhelmed by British logistics, engineering and manpower and they couldn’t afford to keep pace. By the end of the war, the French were eating their horses to survive.

If you like history, forts, battlefields, colonial towns, hiking, biking, back roads, canals, rivers and lakes, you’ll love upstate New York. It’s beautiful. The whole area is one big museum. All you have to do is drive down the road and you’ll find stuff. We were there in the fall to take in the colors and we were not disappointed. Leaves here peak around Columbus Day, which is when we visited. Be warned though – during the summer, the entire area is a crush of people. Make reservations well in advance and be prepared to wait in line for just about everything. Be sure to tour Lake George on a steamboat. Cell phone connectivity is good, so your geocaching killer app should work just fine. Geocaching is a great way to escape the crowds and get out into the countryside.

Hope you enjoyed the post and learned a few things. We sure did…Boris and Natasha

Our Top 10 Geocaches – #4

Hi again,

I started this series last year and got about halfway through it before getting side tracked. Since then, our Top 10 have changed a bit as we have been to some really cool places.

Here’s what we have so far.

#10 – Easy to Overlook Cache, Tucson, AZ

#9 – Nuke on a Mountain Cache, Sundance, WY

#8 – The Caves of the Door Bluff Headlands Cache, Door County, WI

#7 – Spooky Tunnel Cache, Kuhntown, PA

#6 – Trolls Cache, Livingston, MT

#5 – Dragoon Springs Geocache, Dragoon, AZ

Trying to nail down the Top 10 is a moving target because as we travel around, we run into a lot of potential Top 10’s. To make the list, there has to be something extraordinary or unique about the geocache under consideration. It might distance, difficulty, terrain, location, history or just the surroundings. Our #4 cache fell into several of these but made the list because of the totally unexpected – and essentially unknown – events that happened here. From July 2012, the Civil War Entrenchments geocache.

June, 1863. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia is on the move, heading north into Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, the Union Army is in Virginia, licking its wounds after the beating it took at Chancellorsville the month before. Lee’s army is riding high, full of confidence and taking the fight to the North, who seem unable to stop him. The coming Battle of Gettysburg isn’t on anybody’s radar yet. Lee wants to plunder the countryside, maybe capture a major city and force the Union into peace negotiations. At least, that’s the plan.

There was plenty to plunder in Pennsylvania including crops, horses, livestock, textiles, shoe factories, iron forges, warehouses and railroads. It was all undefended. There was no Union Army presence in the state, which was wide open to invasion.

Map of the battle area

A map of the battle area in the weeks leading up to Gettysburg. Most of the labels are self-explanatory. Letter B is the Snake Spring Gap and the location of the geocache. Letter C is Everett, where a cavalry skirmish occurred the week before Gettysburg. Letter D is McConnellsburg which was looted by Lee’s invasion force, along with Chambersburg. Total road distance from A-G is 155 miles.

A particularly lucrative target sat in the hills and valleys of central Pennsylvania – the railroad yards at Altoona, home of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the world famous Horseshoe Curve. The railroad was a major transportation link for the Union war effort and a target rich environment if there ever was one. Everything needed to fight a war could be found in the warehouses and marshalling yards of Altoona. Lee wanted to send a large raiding party to sack the town and wreck the train system, but first, he had to find a way over the steep, heavily wooded Allegheny Mountains. Initial reports had them undefended. In early June, he sent cavalry units under General John Imboden to recon a route.

Governor Andrew Curtin realized the gravity of the problem and also realized they would have to deal with it themselves. On June 13, 1863, telegrams went out to state and county leaders advising them of the situation and asking them to undertake emergency actions to deal with it. Colonel Jacob Higgins, a Union officer home on medical leave, was asked to lead the defenses in the mountains. He agreed and quickly went to work. The call went out for volunteers to build and man defensive positions against an impending Confederate invasion. Almost overnight, 1,500 men answered the call. They came from towns like Saxton, Roaring Spring and Morrison’s Cove. No records were kept. We have no idea who they were, what they did or where they went afterward. But we do know that for a few days in June 1863, they were on the front lines of the Civil War.

Trenchline

The trenchline at Snake Spring Gap. It is remarkably well preserved and can be followed for several hundred yards. At the end, it curves down slope to engage an enemy attack from the flank and prevent an end run. The terrain is very much like what it was in 1863. Steep, broken up and heavily wooded, it would have been almost impossible to mount an effective large-scale ground attack through it. The same thing can be found on the other side of the road, although it is much more overgrown and harder to follow.

The defenders’ biggest problem was time, which was as great an enemy as Lee’s Army. Higgins’ plan was to fortify four gaps where roads crossed over the mountains. These defiles were narrow, steep and heavily wooded. A few men could hold off many. One of those gaps was the Snake Spring Gap. Here, 500 men toiled non-stop for days to dig a formidable trenchline that extended for several hundred yards on both sides of the gap. Cannon were mounted in strong points next to the road. Attacking these positions would have been a daunting challenge. While the volunteers worked furiously on the defenses, militia cavalry went down the mountain to scout and delay the approaching rebel forces.

Meanwhile, Lee’s cavalry was pushing out in all directions for almost 100 miles. To the east, they were on the banks of the Susquehanna River and threatening the state capital at Harrisburg. To the west, they looted Chambersburg and McConnellsburg, then started towards Bedford and Altoona. In Everett (then called Bloody Run), they skirmished with militia cavalry, which showed up quite unexpectedly. When the rebel horse soldiers returned to McConnellsburg for more loot, they were run out of town by another militia cavalry unit. Confederate scouts got close enough to the barricades to report back that the gaps were heavily defended. These unforeseen developments were trouble for Lee’s plans. He wanted what was in Altoona, but the soft vulnerable target of several days ago was gone. Defenses had appeared seemingly overnight and Union cavalry was suddenly active in his area. Now headquartered in Chambersburg, Lee mulled his options.

View of the gap

An attackers view of the Snake Spring Gap. A strongpoint is visible ahead, effectively covering the entire narrow avenue of approach. From here, attackers would have probably been looking down the barrel of a six pounder loaded with double canister. The trenchline continues on both sides of the road for several hundred yards. At the top of the rise on the right, there are the remnants of another strongpoint anchoring that side and bracketing the road. The geocache is along that overgrown trenchline. The state historical marker is visible at the strongpoint.

The Union finalized his plans for him. On June 29 Lee’s scouts reported that the Union Army was in Frederick, MD moving north. He dropped the Altoona plan and turned southeast to meet the new threat. The rest, as they say, is history. On July 1, 1863, the two armies ran into each other at Gettysburg.

When the Battle of Gettysburg started, the mountain defenses were abandoned and everybody went home. There are many places in these Pennsylvania hills where you can find remnants of them, but the trenchline at Snake Spring Gap is the best preserved and most easily accessible.

Historical marker

One hundred years later on June 29, 1963, a state historical marker was placed here as a small bit of recognition for the unknown militia men who performed a brave and arduous task at a critical time.

As I have noted before, Pennsylvania is one big museum. All you have to do is drive down the road and you’ll find stuff. I’m a bit of a Civil War buff and grew up less than 50 miles away in Somerset County. I had never heard of any of this until I found this geocache online and decided to check it out. It is certainly off the beaten path. This important episode affected the course of the war but has been lost to history. The only reminders are some fading trenches, a state marker and a geocache, which comes in at #4.

If you ever want to check out the place, here is the geolocation:
N 40° 06.052 W 078° 23.345 . You can click on the coordinates to bring up a map.

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha