The storied gun battery known as Fort Blunder offers a lesson for civil engineers: Before you build, make sure your surveyors know what they’re doing.
In 1818, work began on a modern, heavy fortification at the northern end of Lake Champlain. The British had launched massive invasions of the United States through the lake during the American Revolution and the War of 1812. As a result, some of the hottest fighting took place in the region during both wars.
Jim Millard in the America’s Historic Lakes blog writes,
Repeatedly mighty armies and massive naval flotillas had traversed the narrow reaches of the river between what is now known as New York and Vermont. The small islands to the north, Hospital Island, Ash Island, Isle aux Noix, had been the scene of frantic military activity and unspeakable suffering as these powerful forces drove north and south along the river.
To prevent that from happening again, President James Madison ordered the fort built. The State of New York helped out by ceding to the federal government a tiny spit of land called Island Point. The state also gave up 400 acres for a military reservation.
Joseph Totten, later chief engineer of the U.S. Army, supervised construction of the octagonal, 30-foot-tall structure. It would have 125 cannons, and any British ship sailing past would come under heavy fire.
Then, two years and $275,000 later, surveyors discovered a problem: The fort was being built on the wrong side of the border.
Under the Treaty of Paris, the 45th parallel marked the border between New York and Quebec. Therefore, the fort designed to protect the United States from Canada was in … Canada.
All work stopped on the fort, and the heretofore unnamed citadel earned the nickname Fort Blunder.
For the next 20 years, enterprising residents of the Rouses Point area looted stones from Fort Blunder and used them for homes, shops and meetinghouses.
The U.S. fixed the problem not by moving the fort, but by moving the boundary line.
After the bloodless and farcical Aroostook War in Maine, Daniel Webster in 1842 negotiated the Webster-Ashburton Treaty. The treaty moved the border north. The United States then began to build another fort, named after American revolutionary hero Gen. Richard Montgomery.
Unlike Fort Blunder, the army actually armed and garrisoned Fort Montgomery. Had Britain entered the Civil War, it would have been an important fortification.
Wanna Buy A Fort?
In the 1920s, the United States sold Fort Montgomery at auction. In 1983, Victor Podd, a Montreal shipping magnate, bought it. He offered part of the property to New York State for a historic site, but New York didn’t want it.
After Podd died in 1999, his sons inherited Fort Montgomery. They tried to sell it on eBay and actually got a bid for $5 million, but the deal fell through.
The Sales Pitch
The owners still want to sell Fort Montgomery. You can buy it for less than $1 million. In 2020, Private Islands, Inc., listed it for $995,000 — less than the price of a two-bedroom New York City condominium!
It’s an ‘eight-acre paradise’ with ‘miles of breathtaking views and a quiet retreat nestled among one of the most pristine wildlife preserves.’ And only 60 minutes from the nightlife and fine dining of Montreal!
If you want to develop the island, you can use thousands of tons of gray limestone blocks from the old fort. According to the sales pitch, “This limestone originated from the Fisk Quarry located in Isle La Motte, Vt., which is no longer accessible due to the discovery of one of the world’s oldest coral reefs.” Limestone from the same quarry form the walls of Radio City Music Hall in New York City and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Limestone symbolizes ‘style, prestige, and a respect for history’ often missing in the modern world, according to Private Islands, Inc. Though perhaps part of that history is, well, not all that prestigious.
Image of Fort Montgomery y Mfwills – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15828989
This story about Fort Blunder was updated in 2023.
[…] Great Lakes, saw some of the most intense fighting — so much so that, after the Treaty of Ghent, President James Madison ordered a heavy fortification be built at the northern end of Lake Champlain to prevent future […]
“Had Britain entered the Civil War, it would have been an important fortification.”
Not unless it was manned by a Confederate garrison, it wouldn’t.
Any British intervention in the ACW would almost certainly have been on the Union side, because:
*Britain was a militantly abolitionist nation – the country that unilaterally declared slave trading illegal anywhere in the world and sent the Royal Navy to enforce that at gunpoint, was never going to go to war for a slavocracy.
*Britain was the only developed nation that didn’t need or want Southern cotton – the British had all they wanted and more from Egypt.
(Note that this did not stop Britain from purchasing blockade-run cotton if it turned up in their ports!)
If one wished to be cynical, it could be observed that the destruction of the Confederate cotton industry left the Anglo-Egyptian textile industry in a hugely advantageous position.
*Britain never believed the South would win. Palmerston’s government used that argument to dissuade France – whose textile industry was entirely dependent on Southern cotton – from intervening on the Confederate side. That was Britain’s most significant contribution to the ACW.
It is valid to point out that Britain shamelessly sold arms and built ships for both sides.
But if revenue from the arms industry was the main British motivation, HMG could have declared for the Union at any time, and seen arms profits go through the roof!
The suspicion – in the face of all historical evidence to the contrary – that there was British sympathy for the Southern Cause, is a weirdly persistent Red Herring.
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