Other than its distinctive landmark, the red brick castle like armory, Whitehall, New York is a small, dusty, insignificant town set just over the Vermont border along Lake Champlain’s South Bay. But, it wasn’t always so.
Given its strategic location, it drew ranks of soldiers during the French and Indian War, then again during the Revolutionary War when Benedict Arnold built the fleet with which the fledgling nation took on the British Navy thus putting it in the running with five other towns as the Birthplace of the US Navy. Whitehall also served as the staging ground for Burgoyne’s troupes that later took Fort Saratoga. During the War of 1812, the town built the ships that converged on the British at the Battle of Plattsburg.
In 1823, a canal was built and the railroad was extended in order to link Lake George and Lake Champlain both with the Hudson River, thereby creating a trade route between the commercial hubs of Manhattan and Montreal. Today, tourists can drive the Lakes to Locks Passage past 66 miles with 20 locks, through forested hamlets, along the seriously scenic trail extending 698 miles from the Erie Canal north of Albany to the St. Lawrence River.
After the wars, the Industrial Revolution spawned along the Lake’s banks, becoming one the country’s most productive regions. Four shipyards continued to build ships in Whitehall, and the Champlain Silk Mill and other mills set up shop along the waterways. The Silk Mill produced ribbon and fabric until the forties introduced a host of novel synthetics. Dwindling business closed the Mill in the fifties and the facility burned a decade later, leaving a single smoke stack standing.
Looming above it all, constructed of gray sandstone quarried from Skene Mountain by Italian stone cutters, roofed with slate and adorned with stained-glass windows, stands a 9,000 square foot Victorian Gothic-style mansion. Built by the town’s founding father on a ridge high above the Bay, Skene Manor is but one of several castles erected in the foothills of the Adirondacks by rising industrialists. Unlike the others, however, the Manor has had the good fortune to be preserved by a local nonprofit and managed as a public tea house and museum rather than moved out-of-state, sold at auction to the highest bidder.