This year seems to be the first in recent memory that the Hudson River froze solid. Two firm sheets of ice floated separately, split by a 250 foot wide seam ripped daily by the US Coast Guard Cutter Sturgeon Bay. The appearance of the River provided a chillingly accurate comparison to what the view may have looked like during Henry Knox’s journey from Fort Ticonderoga to Dorchester Heights two hundred and forty years ago. If in this last mid-February you overlooked the stretch of the Hudson spanning from the City of Albany to modern day Rensselaer and removed the narrow channel of slush and burnt orange road arterials, you could almost see Henry Knox’s envoy making the treacherous crossing with over fifty pieces of artillery, some weighing upwards of 4500 pounds.
Henry Knox’s famous winter trek from the southern end of Lake Champlain to the heights over-looking the British-held City of Boston became frozen in history as a symbol of American perseverance and ingenuity at a time when the cause for liberty from British tyranny needed it the most. Knox, a first generation Bostonian and common bookkeeper volunteered his service to General Washington in fortifying defenses for the newly formed Continental Army in the summer of 1775. Having not even received a military commission for rank (despite tireless lobbying) the civilian Knox volunteered his services to plan and execute a military mission aimed at the transport of vital artillery pieces captured at Fort Ticonderoga by the Green Mountain Boys earlier that year.
This journey is not to be underestimated. Knox returned to Dorchester Heights on January 25th, 1776 with fifty six pieces of artillery which included howitzers, mortars, and cannons. Along the journey he received the rank of Colonel, lost artillery through thin ice, and inspired countless towns of patriots who came out despite the bitter cold to witness the incredible feat of Revolutionary War transportation.
Researching the Henry Knox Trail today presents its own array of challenges, albeit dwarfed in comparison to those faced by the subject of the research. The sesquicentennial of the American Revolution was celebrated in New York and Massachusetts in 1925 by the creation of fifty six granite and bronze markers outlining the Noble Train of Artillery’s wintry three month route through the lower Adirondacks, Mid-Hudson Valley, and east through the Berkshires. At this point in time, the commemorative markers have entered into their own corner of history. They help convey the close connection that New Yorkers have with Henry Knox, even if that linkage only extends to the shared soil that we all drive over every day.
The locations of the stone markers present their own challenges insofar as how Henry Knox’s journey is remembered, and what areas (towns, cities, and historical sites) can claim with confidence a visit two hundred and forty years ago from the Boston bookkeeper. A broad school of research exists on the trail. Local historians provide evidence which contradicts what was previously portrayed as fact by 19th and early 20th century historians. In 1985, trail markers were moved in Columbia County to better reflect one local historian’s well researched argument demonstrating the existence of a road running northwest to southeast which would have provided an easier journey for Knox in the first weeks of 1776. Markers have been moved numerous times in order to make room for widening roads or redesigned traffic patterns. Even the origin of twenty nine pieces of the transported artillery from Fort Crown Point (a Revolutionary War fortification located north of Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain) presents the argument to create an additional stone marker to be placed within this Fort in commemoration of additional sacrifices and action taken to secure these vital pieces of artillery.
Research aimed at accurate placement of the roadside monuments only addresses half the problem. The New York State monument design is identical for all thirty markers and reads:
THROUGH THIS PLACE PASSED
GEN. HENRY KNOX
IN THE WINTER OF 1775 – 1776
TO DELIVER TO
GEN. GEORGE WASHINGTON
THE TRAIN OF ARTILLERY
FROM FORT TICONDEROGA
USED TO FORCE THE BRITISH
ARMY TO EVACUATE BOSTON
No insight is provided into what events occurred nearest to a particular trail marker. The Riverside Park monument in Albany does not mention the dramatic recovery of a cannon which had broken through the ice. Important and dramatic events like this occurred at various locations along the Knox Trail but the ninety year old monuments provide no insight into such events. To fix this, and to educate the public about the incredible events which happened along the Henry Knox Trail, wayside exhibits should be installed alongside existing trail markers to offer a more in depth look at what happened there. With funding provided by the Champlain Valley National Heritage Partnership, this may soon become a reality.
Despite the debate, the Henry Knox Trail remains important in American History and more importantly the history of the Hudson Valley. Knox indeed turned east into Massachusetts just south of Kinderhook, but his journey from Worchester to Fort Ticonderoga to retrieve the cannons carried him through the Island of Manhattan, modern day Croton-on-Hudson, Poughkeepsie, and Livingston Manor. The Hudson Valley supplied Knox with livestock, manpower, and sleds, while the Adirondacks provided him with the artillery. Both were necessary to make Knox into the early American leader he became and this is important to remember and understand.
The new route shows Knox turning southeast and moving through 18th century Renslaerwyck, now modern day Kinderhook.