I can't remember when I first saw the Champlain Memorial Lighthouse. I lived only about 3 miles away from it from the time I was 2 until I was about 7, so it had to be during that period. What I do remember is looking up at the 55' high structure with its elaborate granite base, towering columns and ornate stone carvings and thinking; "this is a castle, not a lighthouse."
Thanks to the Grimms brothers, I envisioned dragons and perhaps an imprisoned princess as I looked to the top. I half expected an extraordinary long lock of hair to come dangling down from the parapet. Back then, I never had the opportunity to climb to the top to check. I'm not sure it was even open to the public at that time. The huge bronze plated door was always tightly secured, reinforcing my belief that the inside held great secrets. It was a place of magic and fairy tales for me. Some of that still lingers.
Though its façade is certainly not typical of a northeastern lighthouse, it did begin as a classic "New England style lighthouse" in 1858. It was originally constructed as a simple limestone brick tower with an attached, rather humble, one and a half story dwelling which was the light-keeper's house.
The original lighthouse served as a Lake Champlain navigational aid faithfully for about 70 years; decommissioned after the opening of the 1929 Lake Champlain Bridge. What dramatically changed its appearance was that in the early 1900s the States of New York and Vermont began looking for ways to commemorate Samuel de Champlain's 1609 exploration of this vast lake. It was the 300th anniversary of the exploration that put Lake Champlain on the map. This tercentennial celebration spawned numerous festivals, pageants, and celebrations up and down the lake, but one clear mission of both states was to erect a permanent memorial to this French explorer. An idea sprang to clad and adorn an existing Lake Champlain lighthouse as a memorial. This seemed particularly appropriate since Champlain was recognized as an esteemed navigator of waterways. Crown Point was the chosen location and in 1910 the unassuming little lighthouse there began its elegant transformation into both an elaborate memorial and the "castle" of my youth.
The process of transformation took approximately two years. Huge stone columns were added along with a massive tapering base, ornamental shields, stone fretwork and some significant sculpture. After an extensive selection process,Carl A. Heber, a well renowned American sculptor, was commissioned to create the large bronze sculpture of Champlain and his two scouts that adorns this structure today.
In addition, since this memorial was honoring one of their countrymen, France generously stepped forward to donate a bronze bust by their great artist, Auguste Rodin. This bust, entitled LaFrance, was dedicated to the people of the States of New York and Vermont as a "tribute of gratitude"; a very nice thank you gift indeed! The model for the female image on the bust is reported to be Camille Claudel, a French sculptress herself and a close associate of Rodin. It is recorded that he felt her image epitomized the very heart and soul of France.
The Rodin bust sets on the lakeside exterior of the memorial lighthouse, directly beneath Heber's Champlain sculpture. How awesome to have the work of such artistic masters sitting amidst the breathtakingly beautiful artwork of Mother Nature at this setting. Admirers of great sculpture receive an expanded experience surpassing any viewing within a museum-type setting.
Situated on a little jut of land within the grounds of the New York State campground at Crown Point, the Champlain Memorial Lighthouse proudly rises above the historic steamship pier. It grabs your attention as you cross the Lake Champlain Bridge. "What is that tower?", visitors to the region ask as they enter the neighboring Lake Champlain Visitors Center. Following the brief explanation, the next question is always, "how do we get to it?"
Though the exterior of the lighthouse can be viewed year-round, it's best to plan your visit on a good weather day when the campground is open, mid- May through mid-October. Of course you want to climb to the top and when the campground is operating the lighthouse is open during the day on all but rainy days when safety becomes a concern. Stop at the campground's check-in booth. A nominal fee is charged, only $2 if you walk in, but this gives you day long access to the entire grounds so tote along a picnic and a fishing pole if you like. Bring a camera, wear sturdy shoes and skip the stair stepper at the gym that morning. The 70-some spiral stairs (I have never gotten the same count!) will lead you to the parapet where phenomenal views and great photo opps await. Enter through the huge, imposing bronze door. Note the original lighthouse whitewashed brick interior that winds around the time worn stone steps. Small, rectangular windows around every third turn or so, offer incredible views and shed natural light to guide you. This same light also creates mysterious shadows around each corner. Every turn will intrigue you. Let your imagination wander freely. Smell the firey breath of a dragon? Find any long blond hair? Enjoy this "castle" and don't even attempt to keep count of the stairs.