Calvin Hilliker isn’t a tour guide by trade. As the maintenance supervisor for Powertex, a company that makes liners for cargo containers in Rouses Point, N.Y., he’s happier messing with machines and making sure the property looks nice than he is talking to the public.
But over the nearly 25 years he’s worked for Powertex, he’s had to grow into the role. The company’s owners, Victor and Stephen Podd, also own Fort Montgomery, a crumbling 19th-century garrison a whisper away from the Canadian border. Hilliker has been tasked with showing around history buffs, visiting journalists and just about anyone who’s interested in the hulking brick and limestone structure.
Recently, he agrees to take me on a tour of the fort. Hilliker, a rugged north-country man who is economical of speech and gruff in mannerism, doesn’t mind showing yet another reporter the property. At least he’s getting outside, he says.
If the Podds have their way, Hilliker’s days as de facto tour guide may be coming to a close. Fort Montgomery is for sale on eBay, and Victor Podd is hoping that the attention focused on the lake during the Quadricentennial celebrations will lure wealthy collectors or entrepreneurial developers who can handle $5 million for the fort and its surrounding acreage.
To understand how a grand, historic structure ended up a graffitied, overgrown shell, it helps to get a little background. Construction of Fort Montgomery, named for American Revolution hero General Richard Montgomery, began in 1844 on the site of another fortress known as “Fort Blunder,” built in 1816. Local historian Jim Millard writes in his book about Fort Montgomery that a fort in this location was deemed necessary because of the many “military incursions” that had taken place where Lake Champlain flows north into the Richelieu River.
Millard, who declined to be interviewed for this story, writes that construction on the fort occurred in spurts for 30 years, and no expense was spared because protection of the waterway was deemed paramount. Once the fort was completed in 1870, the Civil War was over and Fort Montgomery was outmoded. The structure served little military purpose beyond providing a visual deterrent. While soldiers were stationed there and armaments were positioned around the fort, it was never officially garrisoned. By the early 1900s, the guns had all been removed.
The fort declined into serious disrepair. In 1926, the U.S. government sold it at public auction. By 1936, a demolition company had taken down three of the five bastions and removed much of the remaining limestone for use in the first bridge from Alburgh to Rouses Point. By then, locals had already scavenged the fort and carted off huge quantities of masonry to use in building homes. Stephen Podd’s own house is built from scrap limestone and brick salvaged from Fort Montgomery.
Over the past 75 years the fort, which once featured a moat and drawbridge, has been all but forgotten as a historical landmark. Hilliker says there’s not a person in Rouses Point who hasn’t been to a party there. He should know, having spent much of his youth tossing back cans of cheap beer with friends under its casemate arches.
Evidence of these parties and the vandalism they wrought is everywhere at the fort. Where menacing howitzers once sat, faded beer cans collect. Fireplaces are tagged in orange and red spray paint. A long-abandoned box spring lies in one ramshackle room. Bits of plastic and glass detritus cover the floor.
Before the Podds bought the property 23 years ago, cows wandered the parade grounds. By then, the structure had already changed hands a number of times; the Podds purchased it from Québec Lithium for $200,000. Seeking land on which to build a larger headquarters for Powertex, they constructed an industrial park on part of the 366-acre property and left the rest alone.
It’s not easy to reach the fort at the end of the Rouses Point Bridge. Lawful visitors and trespassers alike have to make a substantial effort to get to the ruins. Hilliker agrees to chauffeur me, since it’s unlikely my Pontiac Vibe would last long on the deeply rutted track leading to the citadel at Island Point.
At the Powertex headquarters, I am required to sign a waiver absolving the company of responsibility should I get hit by a falling piece of limestone or trip over a stray beer can. We pile into a white, cobwebby Land Rover Defender and set off. Hilliker soon stops to unlock a metal gate blocking the entrance to the dirt track that leads to the fortress. “If I don’t shut the gate behind me, there will be a ton of people down here,” he says. Trespassers are apparently undeterred by the rugged road, which is often washed out by the lake.
The gouged track cuts through swampland and skirts the lake. Halfway down the rudimentary road the lake laps over it, and Hilliker gingerly muscles the Land Rover through the water. We drive so slowly that he is able to avoid crushing a turtle in the middle of the road. Hilliker parks the truck, hops out of the driver’s seat and moves the critter to safety before continuing on.
Overgrown trees close in, and it’s hard to see where the path leads. Then, without warning, the trees peel back and reveal the skeletal remains of Fort Montgomery. Hilliker drives the Land Rover over the former moat and stops in the middle of the old parade grounds. Only two sides of the pentagonal fort remain, and from the parade grounds we can see the nautical border with Canada.
When Hilliker and I walk through the ruins, I understand why the waiver is necessary. Wearing a hard hat would not have been a bad idea. Slabs of ceiling and sections of brick from the fort’s many archways litter the ground. Hilliker says many of the rock piles are new since he last came, indicating that the structure continues to crumble. It’s not the safest place I have explored.
Mary Racicot, a member of the Rouses Point-Champlain Historical Society, thinks preserving the fort is imperative, if for no other reason than safety. Although the property is posted and trespassing is illegal, people still make their way to the ruins. “People are interested in the fort. They’re always trying to get into it,” Racicot says. “If it could be refurbished, people could enjoy it without the risk of hurting themselves.”
The fort is in serious danger of catastrophic collapse. That’s one of the reasons the Preservation League of New York designated it as a landmark to save, says Tania Werbizky, the organization’s regional director of technical services. After lengthy consideration, the League decided the fort met the criteria because it is “of landmark quality” and because the community cares about seeing the site preserved.
With new visibility from the “Seven to Save” designation, the League and Victor Podd hope they can draft a plan for the fort. “We’re trying to give it that extra oomph,” Werbizky says. “We’re going to try to pull together the stakeholders to come up with a solution.”
But finding a solution to the rapid deterioration will be a challenge, especially in the current economy. The range of options for the fort all require substantial investment and the cooperation of owners and community members, Werbizky says. One course would be creation of a friends group, to which sole ownership of the fort could be transferred. Preservation organizations such as Werbizky’s could then help the friends group find funding for stabilization and future projects.
Of the League’s seven designees, Fort Montgomery is the only one up for sale. But the most recent eBay auction has yielded no bidders. Two years ago, when the Podds first posted the fort on the website, the minimum purchase price was $3 million. They received an offer of just over $5 million, but the deal fell through. Victor Podd, who lives in Florida, says developers have shown some interest in the property, but nothing concrete has materialized.
He acknowledges that the fort has fallen into ruin over the years mainly because the family was too busy building their business to worry about it. In Podd’s ideal scenario, a developer would use the surrounding property, which includes 6700 feet of lake frontage, for a golf course, a marina or lakefront housing, and then invest in stabilizing the fort proper. He’s willing to wait for a good offer — one that would include a plan to stop the structure’s slow return to the marshy ground.
For now, the fortification that never actively defended anything belongs to vandals, wildlife and the curious. Preservation, Podd says, “is just not our forte.”
Like, oh my Quad! Quadricentennial, that is. After a long build-up, the massive celebration on account of Samuel de Champlain’s arrival here 400 years ago is finally upon us, and we can hardly contain the puns.
This week we preview some events in the Burlington International Waterfront Festival — see Dan Bolles’ Q&A with Steve Earle. But while we look forward to the fun, this issue also looks back — at the rich human and natural history surrounding Lake Champlain. Lauren Ober visits four individuals whose livelihoods and passions have depended on the water. She also tours the embattled Fort Montgomery across the lake. Elisabeth Crean wades through the hefty bio of Champlain the peaceful explorer, and Alice Levitt forages at the Abenaki Traditional Garden in the Intervale. Marc Awodey offers the most sobering perspective with a poem about lives lost beneath the waves.
Any way you look at it, Champlain is a lake with stories worth telling.
This is just one article from our 2009 Quadricentennial Issue. Click here for more Quadricentennial stories.