Downshift
Ice road to Independence?

By Bill Hudgins, columnist

On this 237th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, here’s a surprising fact: If it hadn’t been for an intrepid band of patriots hauling loads over ice roads in early 1776, we might still be saying “God Save the Queen” instead of “pass me another hot dog.”

This chain of events started with the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775. An outnumbered patriot force faced off against some 2,000 British soldiers in one of the war’s bloodiest battles.

With almost 50 percent casualties, the British retreated to Boston and hunkered down. The patriots had them surrounded on land, but British ships controlled the harbor and had powerful cannon that could pulverize an attacking army.

The patriots lacked artillery, and without it they couldn’t force the British to leave.

So in late fall 1775, Gen. George Washington ordered fellow patriot Henry Knox to fetch cannon from patriot-held Fort Ticonderoga, N.Y., on Lake Champlain. Knox and his men left Boston on Nov. 17 and arrived at Ticonderoga on Dec. 5.

Knox planned to haul the guns overland from Ticonderoga to the northern end of Lake George, then load them onto boats and sail to Fort George at the southern end of the lake.

Then they’d be loaded onto massive snow sledges pulled by oxen and hauled to Boston. The route included crossing the Hudson River – if it had iced over. Talk about intermodal!

In a letter Knox wrote that he needed “40 good strong sleds that will each be able to carry a (11-foot) long cannon clear from dragging on the ground and which will weigh 5,400 pounds each …”

The first legs of the trip went relatively well. Knox’s little fleet reached Fort George around Dec. 15 or 16, after rowing through freezing winds and storms.

On Dec. 17, Knox wrote Washington that he hoped to reach Boston in 16 or 17 days with “a noble train of artillery.” But like many delivery deadlines, that proved to be overly optimistic.

The relatively mild weather that had allowed them to sail the lake meant there wasn’t much snow for the sleds. The convoy waited at Fort George and, finally, more than two feet of snow fell – on Christmas Eve. That would close the interstates today, but it made for good sledding toward Albany, N.Y.

Meanwhile, Knox went ahead to the Hudson River, where the ice was too thin to support the sleds. So he had men pour water on the surface to thicken it, just like making a sled run on a hill.

The convoy arrived at the Hudson around Jan. 1, 1776, and on Jan. 4 made their first successful crossing. By Jan. 9, they were safely across and sledding through the Berkshire Mountains toward Massachusetts.

They slid into Cambridge on Jan. 24. In March Washington’s army positioned the cannon on Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston. Staring up at those guns, the British decided to leave.

Historians say the victory jump-started morale and persuaded many that we could win the war. Feeling more confident of victory, the Continental Congress voted in July to declare independence.

It’s almost impossible to imagine the hardships Knox and his men endured and their fear on the literally thin ice. Would today’s Ice Road Truckers have tried it? I think they would – especially with liberty on the line.

Note: The expedition’s route is known as the Henry Knox Trail or the Knox Cannon Trail. A virtual tour is available online at www.nysm.nysed.gov.

Until next time, be safe, make money and get home often. LL

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