by Glenn Reed
(Swans - September 10, 2012) Few people take Doig Road into Whitehall, New York, except for locals. This backside route undulates through the wooded hills that keep you guessing where the convoluted border is between Vermont and the Empire State past the south end of Lake Champlain.
This is a pleasant drive featuring dairy farms, fields full of wildflowers, and scattered rolls of hay in the summer. It passes prime bird-watching marshes where egrets can be seen perched in thick reeds. There's a section overlooking Bald Mountain, with its slate cliffs that harbor a colony of falcons.
Here and there are scattered, typical middle-class homes -- newly built, standing alone with large, neatly cut lawns, shiny SUVs in the long driveways, and breakfast coffee views. I don't know where these people work, but I guess many must commute somewhere like Rutland, Vermont, or Glens Falls, New York -- both over 20 miles distant.
I recently learned that this has been a prime area for Big Foot sightings over the years. I've seen plenty of deer, foxes, woodchucks, and wild turkeys along here, but nothing as relatively common as a black bear, let alone a mythical creature.
Such myths seem necessary in small towns like Whitehall.
A last rise of Doig Road brings the sediment-browned, last ribbon of the south part of Lake Champlain into view just before a short, twisting descent that ends with a choice to turn left back towards Vermont, or right directly into the town of Whitehall.
Choosing the latter, I pass chipped-paint houses, sunken porch roofs, rusting lawn mowers and one "Tyler Realty For Sale" sign after another. The pea-soupish green Champlain Canal idles on the right and the cracked and heaving road narrows, squeezed between a sheer limestone hillside and buildings crowding the water. There's barely enough room for two cars to pass side by side. Directly before the bridge into the town center, an abandoned three-story brick building broods on the left and the out-of-business Liberty Eatery & Marina languishes on the right side with a sagging roof, overgrown garden hugging the waters, and shaded by a weeping willow. There's a lone Adirondack chair on its lonesome deck.
I cross the bridge and park in the historic core of Whitehall -- a town that was established back in 1759. Walking alone, I soon hear "Lemonade!" A group of three young girls -- maybe ten years old -- shouts from in front of a vacant store front. A bearded, partially gray haired man in his forties or so is seated close by. I've just passed by the wet carpet smell of Howie's Bar & Grill and an antique store that breathes out its musty smells through the open front door on this humid day.
The girls look expectantly in my direction. There's no one else on the street on this sunny Saturday.
I'm hoping to take a few pictures of this beautiful but decrepit center of Whitehall, dubbed back in 1960 as "The Birthplace of the U.S. Navy." A historic sign on a corner of its Riverside Park, also set on the west side of the canal, notes this bit of history. It seems ironic that Benedict Arnold led the building of the American Revolutionary fleet here, before he switched sides.
Heroes and myths can turn into traitors and disillusionment at the blink of an eye in our history.
Whitehall lies off the beaten track and far east of highway Route 87 that speeds New York City traffic past such forgotten communities to the Lake George and Lake Placid exits or straight on to Montreal. In distant seats of power in Albany or D.C., towns like Whitehall rarely register on the radar.
Ubiquitous "Support the Troops" signs don't necessarily bring in tourist dollars or community development grants to patriotic towns that dutifully wave the flag on key holidays. All of the tax breaks, begging for minimum wage jobs and promises that the locals will pay for extending sewer lines and put in traffic lights won't always bring in the Walmarts. Dollar Stores with mundane cashier jobs won't keep the young people in and the drug dealing out.
"They've taken down the whole interior, but they're trying to save the façade," the lawn-chair man tells me after I ask about construction on the gutted historic building behind him. I'm sipping on the lemonade I bought from the young girls who told me that "business is slow" on this weekend when the traffic remains steady on Route 4, just a mile or so to the south. I'd stuffed a couple of dollars into the plastic cup that held their meager profits. The Paul Ryans of the country would laud these girls' budding "entrepreneurship" and deny any role of government. The latter is certainly lacking here...and it's hurting the former as well.
I walk to the end of the block and turn around at an empty lot overgrown with weeds where a tiny trailer is for sale and the road curves with little fanfare back towards Route 22N. The last block's storefronts are all vacant and still another "For Sale" sign stares out from an unappealing second-story window. Outside one apartment door a table offers fresh vegetables for sale and an assortment of knickknacks that are like refugees from the endless yard sales that sprout in all small towns during the summer.
Yes. Much "entrepreneurship" is often just pure desperation.
I speak again to the man near the lemonade stand, saying that Whitehall seems to have so much going for it with its historic core and beautiful location. I wonder at the crumbling buildings, lack of tourists, and paucity of businesses besides several bars, a bank, Laundromat, and used-furniture store. "People here like it this way," he says. When I ask if there's any artist community in the area, I get a funny, almost contemptuous look and a skeptical "No. The town did get a boost with the Amtrak station."
The culture wars slip in here just through a look or a tone of voice. I don't mention that one major party has absolutely no interest in supporting Amtrak or any other public transportation.
The Amtrak stop is directly across from Riverside Park and next to the American Legion Hall where, today, a couple of vets sell hot dogs and soft drinks. They're talking, as there are no customers in sight. The park's polished granite memorial to veterans of a slew of wars is beautifully kept, surrounded by recently-planted marigolds, and the park's gazebo newly painted, but the fountain is falling apart. A lone fisherman walks back from some choice spot along the canal.
Later I drive up to the historic Skene Mansion, constructed back in 1875 out of slate mined right on the hill upon which it sits and looks out over the center of Whitehall, the Champlain Canal, and the foothills of the Adirondacks rising to the west. From here, the empty storefronts, crumbling brick, and back doors ajar and crowded with weeds, are not so obvious. Whitehall exudes a bit of its quaint and appealing potential.
When I mention to an elderly volunteer at the site what the man told me about Amtrak, he shakes his head. "They had a better station location years ago, with a connection to Rutland and trains coming through four times a day. Now, in the new spot, there's only one stop a day in Whitehall and the connection is gone." And nothing to do if you do stay. And no place to spend the night. No coffee shops or bookstores. But you may catch some vets selling hamburgers and cokes on a summer Saturday.
The Skene Manor volunteer, who is a town native, recommends a "really good" Italian restaurant on the canal. A friend over in Rutland has told me the place is "iceberg lettuce and bleached, white pasta, American-Italian." No one from outside the immediate area would even know of its existence or have any reason to detour off Route 4 to check it out if they did.
The volunteer seems surprised when I tell him that an increase in Amtrak service has led to more drug activity over in Rutland. He doubts that it's a problem in Whitehall.
This area votes overwhelmingly Republican. It has languished for decades under presidents and federal and state elected officials from both parties. Like so many towns, it tends to blame one and rationalize for the other. Little changes either way.
My Rutland native friend told me that Whitehall has been "a depressing place" for as long as he can remember. Heading back out to Route 4, I pass an entire block of empty storefronts in a late 18th century brick building, and a "Ron Paul" lawn sign in front of tilting concrete sidewalk leading to moldy porch chairs and one-bedroom apartments. Many here probably have jobs at the state prison a few miles down the road in Ft. Ann. A few residents are likely incarcerated there. I wonder if anyone really believes a libertarian could save the town or the country.
You might as well believe in, say, Big Foot.
Few people know that the Whitehall area has been a hotbed for alleged Big Foot sightings over the years. In fact, it was featured in a History Channel special back in 2008 about this elusive creature. I'd read that there's a Big Foot statue somewhere in town and I'd intended to photograph it. I looked for it, but never found it and just didn't see anyone around to ask.
Heading east back to Vermont, it just didn't seem to matter anyway. Maybe when things like Big Foot remain a mystery, there is still hope in towns like Whitehall.
Or maybe most just completely give up looking. After all, they've already had their Benedict Arnolds.
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About the Author
Glenn Reed is a freelance writer who has worked in the non-profit world for nearly 30 years, both as paid staff and volunteer. He is also a lifelong activist for social, economic, and environmental justice. He currently resides in Fair Haven, Vermont. (back)