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September 19, 2010

Crown Point Historic Site notes 100th

CROWN POINT — It was 100 years ago when Walter Witherbee tried to preserve two of the nation's leading French and Indian War fortifications by creating what became the Crown Point State Historic Site.

The Port Henry mining magnate bought the property, where 18th-century forts Crown Point and St. Frederick once stood, and turned it over to New York Gov. Charles Evans Hughes.

The Historic Site today includes the ruins of both forts along Lake Champlain, a visitor center and museum, hiking trails and a bird sanctuary.

"It's appropriate that we celebrate the founding of this Historic Site," Friends of Crown Point Historic Site President John Freilich said at a ceremony Saturday.

"I think we're lucky to have this State Historic Site here. It traces the founding of our country."

The British and French both claimed Crown Point in the struggle for a North American empire in the mid-1700s. Four attempts to oust the French between 1755 and 1758 failed, but the British finally took over French Fort St. Frederic in 1759 and built His Majesty's Fort of Crown Point. In 1775, as the Revolutionary War began, colonists captured the fort and secured its cannons for their campaign.

Crown Point Town Historian Joan Hunsdon said she used to play at the Historic Site as a little girl.

"This site has many fond memories for me. My daughter was married at the (Crown Point) Lighthouse."

She said tourists would stop at the Historic Site and ask them, "Why did Champlain stop in Crown Point—"

"We used to say, 'Because he couldn't get his ship under the bridge.' They'd nod like they understood."

The fact that Samuel de Champlain's expedition was in 1609 and the Champlain Bridge was built in 1929 didn't seem to bother them, she said.

"We have proven that Champlain did actually stop here."

Dougla Pyrke and her family own the house located on the grounds of the Historic Site.

She said her grandfather, Berne Pyrke, became county judge and later general counsel for Witherbee, Sherman & Company, the mining firm co-owned by Walter Witherbee.

"I hope he (Berne Pyrke) was instrumental in convincing them to generously donate this site. He loved this place. He said it was too important not to preserve for the future."

She said her grandfather would be happy to know visitors now come from all over the world to see the Crown Point Historic Site.

Witherbee, Pyrke and Hughes had attended the 300th anniversary of Champlain's voyage in 1909, and discussed preserving the historic ruins at Crown Point as a state park.

In 1910, Witherbee bought the property and wrote Hughes a letter that said: "Witherbee, Sherman & Company ... have secured possession of these ruins and desire to present them, through you, to the state of New York for the purpose of creating a state park to preserve them for all time. The tract contains the well-preserved ruins of two important fortifications. The proposed park is as rich and preeminent in historical interest as any locality in this country. Within its borders very likely was fought the far-reaching battle of Samuel de Champlain with the Iroquois."

Site Manager Thomas Hughes produced an 18th-century military sword when it came time to cut the cakes baked for the site's 100th birthday.

"I thought the sword was appropriate," Hughes said. "When we toasted a happy 100th anniversary for the site, Joan added a toast to the next 100 years. That's how I feel about this great place."

E-mail Lohr McKinstry at: lmckinstry@pressrepublican.com

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