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Whitehall History

Originally called Skenesborough, Whitehall, NY, was first settled in 1759 by British Army Captain Philip Skene, and retained the name of Skenesborough until 1786. The location had been the site of the northernmost British fort during the French and Indian War (1754-1763). Skenesborough became the first permanent settlement on Lake Champlain as well as an important center of maritime trade.

The town was granted a charter on March 13, 1765 when Philip Skene received a grant of 25,000 acres of land from King George III. The charter stipulated that there was to be a democratic government and that Wood Creek, which flowed into Lake Champlain at the site of the Skenesborough settlement, would be a public highway.

In order to attract settlers to Skenesborough, Philip Skene placed an advertisement in New York City in June, 1765. Settlers were offered three years' free rent. The settlement already had a sawmill, and there would be a gristmill added in the summer of 1765. There was a road leading south to Fort Edward, and another leading north to Montreal. Two navigable waterways - Wood and East Creeks - also ran through the settlement. In addition, settlers could earn three pence per bushel of wood ashes resulting from the clearing of land.

1775 Charlotte/Albany County Map
1775 Map of Charlotte &
Albany Counties
(Source: Skenesborough Museum)

The roads and waterways developed by Philip Skene became major routes for the transport of American and British servicemen and supplies during the American Revolution (1775-1783) and the War of 1812 (1812-1815). Through the efforts of Philip Skene, Skenesborough was designated the shire town (county seat) of Charlotte County from 1773 to 1774. Philip Skene envisioned the formation of a Crown Colony comprised of Charlotte County (much of present-day Vermont) and much of the Adirondack Mountains along Lake Champlain. In an effort to make this dream a reality, Skene departed for London in 1774 to petition the Crown.

On May 9, 1775, while Skene was still in England, Skenesborough was captured by American forces led by Lieutenant Samuel Herrick. This was the first Revolutionary War action in New York State. Philip Skene's trading schooner Katherine was confiscated, christened the Liberty, and used by Colonel Benedict Arnold to capture the British supply ship HMS George (renamed Enterprise) at St. Johns, Quebec on May 18, 1775.

In 1776, Congress ordered General Philip Schuyler to build a fleet of ships. Materials, supplies, carpenters, soldiers, and sailors descended upon Skenesborough Harbor, where the first US naval fleet was constructed that summer. For this reason, Whitehall is known as the Birthplace of the US Navy.

This fleet of thirteen ships joined the other American vessels, including the Enterprise, to form a 16-vessel naval fleet which was led by Benedict Arnold. The Americans faced the 30-vessel British fleet in the Battle of Valcour Island on October 11, 1776. Although the Americans were defeated, the approaching winter weather forced the British to delay their attacks on Crown Point and Fort Ticonderoga and retreat to winter camp in Canada. This allowed the Americans time to adequately prepare in order to stop the British at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, considered by many to be the turning point of the American Revolution.

After the Revolutionary War, Whitehall grew slowly. Agriculture developed and a woolen mill was established at the waterfall formed by Wood Creek emptying into Lake Champlain. This mill prospered due to the raising of Merino sheep in the area.

A major industry lending to Whitehall's growth was shipbuilding. Four boatyards in Whitehall produced boats that served various purposes on the lake and the Champlain Canal, construction of which commenced in 1817. The canal connected Lake Champlain with the Hudson River and facilitated the transportation of lumber and other goods between Canada and New York City.

The railroad also played an important role in Whitehall's growth and prosperity. The Saratoga and Rensselaer Railroad extended to Whitehall in 1848, and a second line, the Rutland and Washington, connected Whitehall to Vermont. As lake steamers stopped regular service, the New York and Canada Railroad Company extended the railroad from Whitehall through the Adirondack Mountains. A railroad passenger station was built in 1850 and replaced by the Delaware and Hudson station in 1892. The railroad was Whitehall's largest industry for many decades.

In 1874, Whitehall received another economic boost with the arrival of the silk mills. These were operated by different companies over the years, some of which even erected homes for silk mill workers. The silk mills enjoyed many years of prosperity in Whitehall, but saw a decline in the mid-twentieth century when the development of synthetic fibers caused the demand for silk to decline.

This and other events contributed to an economic decline in Whitehall. Prior to 1932, North and South Canal Streets (now Main Street and Broadway, respectively) were connected, and businesses along this route prospered. However, the railroad was realigned and the railroad tunnel shortened, resulting in Main Street being cut off from Broadway. This was devastating to the businesses on Main Street.

In addition, the D&H Railroad began removing some buildings and services from Whitehall in the 1960s. Construction of the Adirondack Northway caused traffic to bypass Whitehall, and, in the 1970s, companies began favoring highways to the canal for transportation of goods and fuel.

Although Whitehall has suffered many economic blows over the years, there are various developments that have helped the town. The New York State Canal System, including its towpaths, now attracts many tourists, cyclists, and fishermen. Development of the Urban Cultural Park and Whitehall Heritage Area has helped to attract tourists to the town. Explore this website to find out more regarding Whitehall's history and its attractions, such as the Skenesborough Museum and the Skene Manor.

References: Skenesborough Museum; Philip Skene of Skenesborough, 1959, by Doris Begor Morton; Day Before Yesterday, Second Edition, 2005, compiled by Doris Begor Morton.

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