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2003 Champlain Historic Calendar

A History of Champlain, New York

             The Village of Champlain has a rich history that has mostly gone unnoticed in Clinton County.  Part of this history has been recorded in black and white photographs taken in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  This 2003 historic calendar showing the Village of Champlain has tried to reproduce some of this pictorial history.                                                                       

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            In 1781, the Revolutionary War was waging.  New York State authorized the raising of two regiments on bounties of unappropriated lands in the state.  A young soldier named Pliny Moore, who had enlisted in the army in 1776 at the age of 17, re-enlisted and served in various companies.  Towards the end of his enlistment, he and 17 others obtained the land rights to the 11,600 acre Smith and Graves Patent (also called the “Moorsfield Patent”) in upstate New York.  The Village of Champlain resides entirely in the Moorsfield Patent. 

            Pliny made two survey trips from Kinderhook (near Albany) to Champlain.  In 1785, he traveled to Champlain by way of Vermont and Grand Isle to inspect his grant.  In 1786, he again traveled up to Champlain, but this time laid out 119 lots that were 100 acres in size.  His survey journal shows the lot numbers and the condition of the land including the type of trees, soil or swamp conditions and whether any rivers or streams were present. 

            On March 7, 1788, the state legislature created Clinton County and the Town of Champlain.  On May 23, Pliny Moore and five other men arrived back in Champlain and built a dam, sawmill, huts, roads and started to clear the land.  Pliny originally called the settlement “Moorsfield on the River Chazy” but later it was changed to “Champlain” for unknown reasons.  When Pliny settled Champlain, he owned 40 of the 119 lots after buying out other soldier’s land titles.  Less than a year later, in February of 1789, Pliny brought his small but growing family to the area.

            When Pliny arrived in Champlain in 1788, he immediately built a log house on the shore of the Chazy River close to the Elm Street bridge.  Later that year, he built a stone house and in 1801, commenced building his mansion on the upper bank of the river on Elm Street.  An 1860 engraving shows the house in a history book on the War of 1812.  The house was later owned by Pliny’s son and grandson and in 1883, was bought by Pliny’s great-grand-daughter, Elizabeth Nye McLellan, who, with her husband Charles, made it their summer home until 1906, when they retired in Champlain.  Charles and Elizabeth raised two sons, Malcolm and Hugh, who also made it their home years later. 

            On April 27, 1912, a fire engulfed part of downtown and also burned down the Pliny Moore house.  Fortunately, the back cottage was spared.  Using drawings and measurements that Hugh McLellan made for an architectural project in college, the house was rebuilt by 1914 to the original specifications.  Today, the house still stands on the corner of Elm and Oak Streets.  The McLellan family owned the house until 1983 when it was sold to the Clark Funeral Home who had rented the main house since the 1930s. 

            Pliny was the first judge, postmaster and merchant of Champlain.  He served in various judgeships from 1788 to 1819 when he retired at the mandatory age of 60.  Pliny also owned numerous farms, mills and houses in Champlain and had a business in Canada. 

            The Village of Champlain saw considerable activity during the War of 1812.  On several occasions, the American army was stationed in the town and participated in several raids into Canada.  In September of 1814, General George Prevost’s army of 14,000 soldiers camped in the town for several weeks during the Battle of Plattsburgh invasion.  On each occasion, Pliny Moore’s house and several other houses in the village were occupied by the soldiers.  The funeral of Lieut.-Colonel Benjamin Forsyth was held in Pliny’s house in June of 1814 after he was killed by Indians during a raid into Canada.  The British captain who led this Indian party, named St. Valier Mailloux (variously misspelled Mayhew, Mahew and Mayo), was shot in retaliation and died in the basement of Pliny’s house.

            Champlain has grown considerably over the years.  In 1790, the town had 149 residents consisting of 37 families.  The houses, buildings and streets have also changed over the years.  Main Street was always the center of the town.  An 1820 map drawn by Pliny shows a number of houses on the street and a sawmill on the west bank by the Main Street bridge.  By the early 1900s, the entire street was lined with buildings and trees. 

            Because downtown was built in the flood plain of the Great Chazy River, a number of large spring floods have altered the look of the town.  Devastating floods in 1904, 1905, 1911, 1917, 1936 and 1946 have been recorded with photography.  Some photos show water extending up Church Street as far as St. Mary’s Church.  Because of persistent floods and some devastating fires, downtown has lost most of its original buildings.  River Street has also lost most of the houses and buildings present in the early 1900s. 

            Champlain was a prosperous border town in the 1800s.  Some of the residents were operators of sawmills or farms or were merchants downtown.  These residents were able to build large mansions around town such as the Nye family’s Locust Hill mansion, later called the Savoy in 1930, built in 1851 by Bartlett Nye who amassed great wealth with the partnership with his brother called “F. & B. Nye”.  Other large mansions were built on Oak Street north of the Pliny Moore house.  These were built by Timothy Hoyle, Alexander Whiteside, Royal Moore, Loring Hubbell and others.  All of these men had a strong influence on the growth of Champlain in the mid-1800s.  

            Unlike many homes in other communities in Clinton County, Champlain’s historic houses have not changed much since their construction.  This is, in part, due to the building of Interstate 87.  The main route to Canada was moved away from Oak Street and Meridian Road, and subsequently, Oak Street never had commercial development on it and remained a quiet residential community.

2003 calendar-the village of champlain
Images courtesy Special Collections Library, Plattsburgh State University College or the author.
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