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Clinton County Historical Association (CCHA)

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Essay: Establishment of the Early Roads and
Bridges in the Town of Champlain


This essay looks at the development of the roads and bridges in the Town of Champlain.  After the Town of Champlain was founded in 1788 and elections held in 1789, a town highway commission directed that roads and bridges be built and maintained.  Early roads grew out of foot paths between a few scattered log cabins.  By the early 1800s, the town was growing and many roads had been built.  In 1805, the State Legislature established the Great Northern Turnpike Company which planned to build a turnpike from Albany to Montreal through Champlain (Prospect Street).  The essay will also look at the first wooden bridges built in town starting in 1794.  The first iron bridges were built in town starting in 1871 and many were damaged by ice jams on the Great Chazy River.


Each month's photograph has a detailed history written about the images below.   Many other images and maps are found in the essay.  

2012 champlain historic calendar images used
                      in months

Establishment of the Early Roads and Bridges in Champlain Town

The growth of the Town of Champlain’s roads, highways and bridges is difficult to follow.  In Champlain’s earliest days, roads grew out of foot paths between a few scattered log cabins.  As more settlers came to town, common footpaths became established dirt roads.  After the town’s first elections in 1789, a town government was formed and a highway commission was created with elected commissioners.  Roads and bridges were now built using the taxes assessed in town or from money allocated by the state legislature.  This essay attempts to show the evolution of the roads and bridges in Champlain Town, albeit incomplete, over the past 230 years. 


The First Traveled Paths in the Village of Champlain (1788)

            Pliny Moore traveled to Champlain from Kinderhook, N.Y. in 1785 and 1786 to survey his 11,600 acre land grant called the Moorsfield Grant or Smith and Graves Patent.  The first time he came to this area, he traveled through Vermont as there were no roads to Canada on the west side of the lake.  In May of 1788, Moore and his team of workers and settlers rowed up the Great Chazy River to build a sawmill that would today be along the Perrys Mill road a few miles west of the Village of Champlain.  The permanent settlers included blacksmith Caleb Thomas, William Beaumont, Samuel Ashmun and brother-in-law Elnathan Rogers.  


            The interior to Champlain Town was completely unsettled when Moore arrived.  Over the next five months, Moore’s workers would help him build a sawmill as well as build their own log houses.   Moore also built a hut on the Chazy River where the former First National Bank building is today (at the Elm Street bridge).  A year later, he built a frame house on the hill where today’s Clark Funeral home is.  Samuel Ashmun built a hut and eventually a house on lot 32 on present day Oak Street just north of the village.  Elnathan Rogers lived south of today’s village on lots 72 ad 73 off of today’s Rt. 9. 


            On November 8, 1788, after a summer of working in Champlain, Moore drew a map of the foot paths that connected the sawmill and settlers’ huts.  This was the first map showing the roads in Champlain.  Most astonishing is that most of the paths he drew have become the roads we travel today.  Moore’s map clearly shows the sawmill and other huts (perhaps a blacksmith shop) on the road to Perrys Mills (see map at Location 1).  A path leads east towards the village of Champlain and passes two more huts that were probably built by William Beaumont and Caleb Thomas (Locations 2 and 3).  At Location 4 is the hut of Samuel Ashmun.  Moore’s drawing clearly shows a straight line down to his hut at the river at Location 5.  This path later became Oak Street and ran on the edge of lots 46 and 47 (even in 1797 this road was referred to as a “bush road”).  From here, the path runs south from the village to Elnathan Rogers’ hut at Location 7 now on Route 9.  A path leads from this house to the river rapids at Location 6 but no roads exist today along this route.  So Moore’s map shows the beginnings of Oak Street, the east half of Main Street and the State Road (Route 9). 

The Road from Rouses Point to Dewey’s Tavern (1797)

            In 1797, Elias Dewey and his small family came to Champlain.  He sailed from Whitehall to Rouses Point in the sloop called “Drowning Boy.”  When he arrived on the lakeshore, he used oxen to haul his household items to his lot.  Today, this location is at the intersection of Prospect St. and Route 276.  There may have been an overgrown path to his property from Rouses Point but he is said to have cleared this path and made a permanent road.  Today this would be the road that runs from Dewey’s Tavern, past the golf course to Rouses Point, also known as Prospect and Chapman Streets.   Prior to 1811, this was the only road that ran from Champlain to Rouses Point.  Dewey built a log cabin in 1797 and then built his frame house in 1800.  Both structures still stand and are owned by Louis and Rita Bedard.


The Road from Rouses Point to Champlain a.k.a. Route 11 (1808, 1811 & 1820)

                One of the most important roads in Champlain Town almost did not get built.  Today, this would be the road from Champlain to Rouses Point which later became Route 11.   In 1808, a road was built from the lakeshore to William Masten’s blacksmith shop which at the time was near the corner of today’s Route 11 and Hayford Road.  By 1811 it was decided that the road should be continued to Champlain.  Unfortunately, some lakeshore residents protested and said the road was unnecessary and too hard to maintain.  The road was built and it became the second road from Champlain to Rouses Point, with the first being Prospect and Chapman Streets.  An 1840’s map of Champlain Village shows Elm Street labeled as “Lake Street”.  .......


The Lake Shore Road at the “Canadian Settlement” (circa 1783)

                The earliest settlers on the lakeshore were refugees from Canada who had aided the American cause during the Revolutionary war.  The Canadian men and boys had served under General Moses Hazen in what was called “Congress’s Own”.  After the war, they found that they could not go back to Canada and instead squatted on unallocated land along the lakeshore from Champlain to Chazy as well as along the lower part of the Great Chazy River.  Such refugees included Jacques Rouse, Joseph Bindon, Prisque Asselin (Ashline), Scotsman Henry Hardie, several people by the name of Earl as well as the families of these settlers.   About 1787, the state legislature allocated land for these soldiers as payment for their service.  In all, 214 soldiers were awarded unallocated land that extended from Champlain down to Plattsburgh in what was called the Canadian and Nova Scotia Refugee Tract.  .......


The Great Northern Turnpike (GNTP) & Prospect Street (1805)

            On April 4, 1805, the state legislature passed a law that established the Great Northern Turnpike Company.  The charter of the company stated that a road would be built from Kingsbury, N.Y. (near Glens Falls) to the “North Line” through Essex and Clinton counties “by the most direct and practicable route” possible.  The goal of the turnpike was to increase commerce and travel between Albany and Montreal, to increase the value of the lands in the state’s remote areas (such as in Champlain), to allow for future roads from the west to intersect the turnpike and to enable easier access to the wealth of minerals found in the mountains that were “lying in a state of nature.” 


            Today, the Great Northern Turnpike in Champlain is known as Prospect Street.  This road was laid out from the “great bridge” on Elm Street, north on Prospect Street to the house of Elias Dewey and then north to the border along today’s Route 276 to the “Great Kings Road” which had recently been built from Montreal to the border through Odelltown.  


            Locally, Pliny Moore, Benjamin Mooers, Peter Sailly and Henry Delord were chosen commissioners with Moore being voted president of the company.  Theodorus Ross and Elkanah Watson were commissioners from Essex County.  Dr. Charles D. Cooper and Charles R. Webster were commissioners from Albany.   The principal surveyors were William Beaumont (uncle to the famous future doctor), George Nelson and Beriah Palmer.  The commissioners purchased stock in the company at $25 per share.  Other subscribers were to pay $3 per share with up to six thousand shares issued.  The commissioners were appointed by the governor the first year and elected by the stockholders in 1808 and 1809 as well as other years.  Silas Hubbell of Champlain and Joseph I. Green of Plattsburgh were elected commissioners in 1809.  Public meetings by the commissioners were held in Albany, Sandy Hill, Chesterfield, the Village of Union (Peru), Plattsburgh and Champlain up to at least 1816.............


The Roads to Canada

            In the early days of Champlain Town, there were only two or three roads that crossed into Canada.  By the 1850’s, that had expanded to nine roads as Canada had become a major part of Champlain’s economy.  Today, this number has dropped back down to three.  Many of the abandoned border crossing roads can be determined by comparing older maps to a modern map.


            Probably the first road to Canada was the road from Champlain to Odelltown.  The pre-1797 road later became part of the Great Northern Turnpike and intersected with the “Great King’s Road” which may have been built in 1790.  The American and British armies used this road to cross the line during the War of 1812 and many skirmishes occurred along this route.  Another road was laid out from Rouses Point to Canada in 1801.  It ran across refugee lots 59 through 66 and passed through the “Common Gate” entrance.  This land became known as the Commons when it was purchased by the government in 1815 for the establishment of a fort on the lakeshore.  A third road was established in the early 1800’s and became known as the Montreal Stage Road.  This was Oak Street (Moore Street or Canada Street) in the Village of Champlain and it became Meridian Road outside the village line.  Meridian Road connected to today’s Route 217 (Rang Saint Andre) which went directly north to Montreal.   A modern border crossing was built in the mid-1900s but was abandoned when I-87 was opened. .......


Major Pathways of the American and British Armies During the War of 1812

            It is fairly easy to determine the route that the American armies took during the three unsuccessful attempts to invade Canada through Champlain.  It is more difficult, however, to determine the exact routes the British army took from Canada to Plattsburgh.


            In 1812, General Dearborn’s army came up from Plattsburgh by way of the State Road (Route 9) or GNTP and camped on Pliny Moore’s land on Prospect Street.  They then made their way up the turnpike (Rt. 276) and entered Canada on the Odelltown Road.  In 1813, General Hampton came down the lake from Burlington and rowed up the Chazy river where he disembarked and marched to Deweys by way of Leggett or Hayford Roads.   Another part of the army rode up on horses.  They then marched into Canada on the Odelltown Road.  General Wilkinson also came up the State Road/GNTP from Plattsburgh in 1814 and all of the armies marched up the Odelltown Road again.  Today’s Rt. 276 border crossing was a virtual revolving door for both armies, militia and officers on both sides throughout the war.  Gen. Izard’s 4-5,000 man army camped on Pine Street overlooking St. Mary’s Church and then marched south to Plattsburgh on the State Road.  Pliny Moore noted one time that some militia landed in Rouses Point and marched to Dewey’s Tavern; the route being along Prospect St./Chapman St.  The surprise attack on a British picket by American militia in 1813 occurred near the Rt. 276 border crossing.  American Col. Benjamin Forsyth and Canadian Captain St. Valier Mayhew were both killed at different times on Route 276 near the border........

The Bridges in Champlain Town


            When Clinton County was organized in March of 1788, the Town of Champlain encompassed the present-day towns of Altona, Clinton, Ellenburg, Mooers and Chazy.   There were only a few roads here and no permanent bridges prior to 1793.  The only way to cross the Great Chazy River, Little Chazy River or Corbeau Creek was by ferry, wading in low water or by ice.  As the town became settled, the need for bridges became critical.


                Many bridges have been built in Champlain Town as well as the town of Mooers over the past 218 years.  For the first 100 years of Champlain’s history, bridges were prone to destruction from ice and water.  The early bridges were built of logs, and starting in 1871, built of iron.  Unfortunately, the iron truss bridges were easily damaged by ice and many were swept away.  The bridges built in the 1930s and after were considerably stronger and survive today.  


                The northern towns in Clinton County have seen considerable flooding over the years, most notably along the Great Chazy River.  Floods (freshets) and ice jams occurred in 1809, 1815, 1835, the 1840’s, 1857, 1886, 1887, 1896, 1904, 1911 as well as other times.   Newspaper stories and bridge contracts suggest that the town has had many bridges built or repaired.  It is difficult to determine just how many bridges may have existed on the rivers and creeks around town. 



Proposal for the First Bridges in Town

                In 1793, Pliny Moore proposed that three bridges be built in Champlain Town (including Chazy).  Moore wrote several letters to John Williams and John Knickerbacker Jr., who were state commissioners in charge of the roads, highways and canals.  He proposed that a bridge be built over the Great Chazy River, Little Chazy River and Corbeau Creek.  Unfortunately, the commissioners could only allocate 90 Pounds of state currency and Moore was concerned that this was not enough money.   In a letter written on July 30, 1793, he stated:  “By Your favor of the 10th Ins’t informed that the sum to be appropriated to Building Bridges for this Town..............


The “Lower Bridge” in the Village of Champlain (Elm Street)

            It is not clear when the Lower Bridge or Elm Street bridge was built but it was likely built during the winter of 1794 after it was approved the by state commissioners.  At the time, the area along Champlain’s Main Street was completely unsettled.  With the bridge present by 1797, Thomas Fox, who had come from England, built a log cabin near the south end of the bridge at the site of the former Champlain Hall brick building.   Afterwards, Amasa Corbin built the first frame house on the flat and operated a store.   Charles Lewis Sailly (the son of Peter Sailly of Plattsburgh) also operated a store here.  These were Main Street’s first businesses and they could only have flourished after a bridge was built to connect the north and south banks of the Chazy river.


The “Upper Bridge” in the Village of Champlain (Main Street)

            The Upper Bridge was for many years only a crude walkway across the Chazy river.  Prior to 1811, Pliny Moore built a stone mill on the west bank of the river where Main Street passes over the bridge.  This mill building stood until 1876 and was used as a mill, school, jail and barracks for American soldiers during the War of 1812.  It is commonly referred to as the “old stone mill”, “clothing mill” or just “grist mill”.  In the early days, the only way to cross the river here was on “string pieces” which were hewn timbers tied together and supported by piers in the river.  This structure is clearly seen in one of Pliny Moore’s maps.  To get their grain ground, people from all over town would come to the mill by way of the Chazy River and unload their boats at the lower bridge where the riverbank gently slopes down at today’s River Street.  They then had to haul their grain over the Elm Street bridge, pass through the village flat (downtown Main St.) and cross the precarious walkway to the gristmill. 


The Bridges at Coopersville

            Coopersville was settled as a mill station.  Around 1805, Benjamin Mooers purchased lots where the Corbeau Creek empties into the Chazy River.  He built a sawmill and gristmill on the Corbeau and this area was referred to as “Mooers Mills” until 1816.  Afterwards, Ebenezer Cooper bought this land and built more mills.  The area became known as Coopersville and his Federal style house still stands on the south bank of the river by the Route 9B bridge. 


            On March 1, 1815, Benjamin Mooers wrote a letter to Lieutenant Governor John Taylor and asked that the legislature authorize the building of a bridge near his mills.  At the time, the only bridge across the Chazy river was in the Village of Champlain.  This was an inconvenient location as it required people to travel 10 miles out of their way to get to the other side of the river.  Not surprisingly, some people (probably merchants) in the village did not want the bridge built because it would reduce the amount of travelers passing through the village.  The same could be said when I-87 bypassed Route 9 and Main Street in the mid-20th century.


Read or hear about the 2013 Champlain Historic Calendar in local media:

About the sources of material for this calendar series

All images in the 2013 calendar are courtesy the Special Collections, Feinberg Library at Plattsburgh State University College, the Clinton County Historical Association in Plattsburgh, the
Samuel de History Center in Champlain or the author.  

To purchase a

            This calendar, with a 15 page historical essay will benefit the Glenwood Cemetery Association of Champlain.    It can be purchased at many locations in the Champlain and Plattsburgh areas.


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