The Champlain Memorial Lighthouse rises from a small point of land just south of the Champlain Bridge. In July of 1609, Champlain and two of his men were guided down Lake Champlain from the north by Algonquin Indians from the St. Lawrence River region to help battle their enemies. The Iroquois. A battle took place (perhaps on or near the present-day site of the lighthouse); the firearms of the Frenchmen proved decisive and the Algonquins returned north in triumph. Thus Champlain was the first European to record seeing the lake which he named for himself.
The construction of the lighthouse memorial was a joint effort of the States of New York and Vermont (two small memorials flanking the lighthouse are inscribed with the names of the members of the tow commissioners) as part of the 300th anniversary celebration of Champlain’s “discovery” of the lake. Many sites on Lake Champlain – including Cumberland Head, Plattsburgh, Isle La Motte, Bluff Point, Split Rock, Rock Dunder, Ticonderoga, Mount Defiance, and Juniper Island- were considered for the memorial before the two commissions finally agreed on Crown Point.
Incorporating the memorial with a lighthouse seemed a fitting way to commemorate an explorer and navigator of Champlain’s stature. The architectural style chosen was popular during Champlain’s time and reflects the style employed in parts of royal hunting lodges in France, such as Fontainebleau. The 1946 edition of the WPA’s A Guide to the Empire State, describes the light house as follows: “The memorial is classical and French Renaissance in style, with heavy stone Roman Doric columns, entablature, ornamental frieze and setbacks.”
The outer stone is Fox Island granite from Maine. The statue of Champlain, flanked by a Native American and a French Voyageur, was sculpted by American Carl Auguste Heber (1875-1956). Champlain stands in the center above the prow of a canoe which appears to be filled with furs or other goods. Champlain and the soldier are fully uniformed and the soldier wears a helmet. The soldier crouches to his proper left.
Below the figures is the bust “LaFrance”, an exquisite bronze bust sculpted by the famous Frenchman, Auguste Rodin and spontaneously presented by athe French government in May 1912. Rodin created this bronze cast from his 1904 plaster statue “France”. The following was taken from an excerpt of Congressman John Lindsay’s address at the 1959 rededication ceremonies, “Rodin’s ‘LaFrance’ was the spontaneous gift of the French people to American on the celebration fifty years ago of the 300th anniversary of Champlain’s discovery. It is a magnificent creation, done in bronze and permanently set in the base of the monument, facing the water. This monument, therefore, is a noble testimony to the friendship of tow great nations and their abiding respect for enduring traditions. When it was dedicated May 3, 1912, the president of the French delegation remarked in two short sentences: ‘The United States is raising a monument to a Frenchman, and France sends you, through us, her tribute of gratitude. Once more, the two great democracies are thinking and acting in unison.”
On each side of the monument are three coats of arms: on the southeast, starting from the lakeside, New France (Canada at the time of the French occupation), Vermont and France at the time of Louis XIII; on the northwest, the United States, New York, and Brouage, France, Champlain’s birthplace.
The interior brick, cylindrical shaft, holding the spiral staircase, is a remnant of an earlier limestone lighthouse (as is part of the foundation). This shaft is approximately a foot out of plumb, which complicated the 1912 construction. The original lighthouse was torn down in 1926 when the lighthouse was decommissioned.
The lighthouse was taken out of active service in 1926 and deeded to the State of New York. Today it is part of the Crown Point Reservation Campground and is open to the public.
The site of the Champlain Memorial Lighthouse has a rich historic past. It was originally occupied by a windmill built by the French in about 1737 during the construction of Fort St. Frederic. The windmill ground grain for the fort garrison and the inhabitants of the nearby village and served as an outer defensive structure. The French blew it up, along with the fort, in 1759 as they relinquished the area to the English.
In late 1759, when the British decided to build Fort Crown Point as their primary defensive fortification on Lake Champlain, the lighthouse site was chosen of one of the outer forts, the Grenadier Redoubt. A part of the redoubt in the form of the ditch just south of the lighthouse, remains today.