Burlington to Plattsburgh Great American Railroad Journeys


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Burlington to Plattsburgh

Michael Portillo continues his American rail journey through New England as he heads for the Canadian border. First stop is Burlington, Vermont.


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LineFromTo

I have crossed the Atlantic to ride the railroads of North America

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with my faithful Appleton's Guide.

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Published in the late 19th century,

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it will lead me to all that is magnificent, charming,

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confusing, invigorating and wholesome in the United States and Canada.

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As I journey through this vast continent,

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I'll encounter revolutionaries and feminists, pilgrims and witches,

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and ride some of the oldest and most breathtaking railroads in the world.

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TRAIN WHISTLE BLOWS

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TRAIN BELL CLANGS

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I'm in Vermont,

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headed for the second largest country in the world - Canada.

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This is American border country and, along a 5,500-mile frontier,

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a new relationship had to be forged between the already powerful

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United States of America

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and the recently formed Confederation of Canada.

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I'll travel back through the 19th century to times when the all-important

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trade routes across the Great Lakes were bitterly contested.

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Appleton's tells me that Canada,

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a word derived from the native Iroquois language,

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is a name to be conjured with

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and so it has proved to be.

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HORN BLOWS

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My journey began with coastal Boston, Plymouth and Nantucket.

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I'm now travelling north through New England to the winter sports paradise of Lake Placid.

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Crossing the border into Canada,

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I'll start in French-speaking Quebec province before tracing my route

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west along Lake Ontario, to end in the country's largest city, Toronto.

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Today, my first stop is the timber town of Burlington, Vermont,

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then I'll cross Lake Champlain to Plattsburgh, New York.

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After a detour southwest to the wilderness around Lake Placid,

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I'll end this leg at the US border with Canada.

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On my travels, I discover how the other half does rural retreats...

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My goodness, Lawrence, I think this is one of the biggest rooms I've ever seen!

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..learn of the territory lost in a humiliating military blunder...

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The border between the United States and Canada would be much further

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south than it is now.

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Much further south.

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..and seek thrills of Olympic proportions.

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Every part of me has been shaken to bits

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and I've been turned almost upside down.

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HE LAUGHS

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In this verdant American state,

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the striking greenery is supplied by millions of trees

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and so it's no surprise to read in my Appleton's that -

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"Burlington, the largest city in Vermont, has become one of the great lumber marts,

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"with several of the largest mills in the country for planing and dressing lumber

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"and extensive manufactories of doors, packing boxes, furniture, spools etc."

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And even before the coming of the railroads,

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these goods could be exported across the beautiful waters of Lake Champlain towards Canada.

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TRAIN HORN

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Have a good trip! TRAIN HORN

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Burlington hugs the eastern banks of Lake Champlain,

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whose shores are on the one side

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in Vermont and on the other in New York State.

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Once a key trade route,

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this 120-mile-long freshwater lake stretches up to Canada.

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Burlington, Vermont, has the unusual distinction of being the smallest town in America, which is

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the largest town in its state, if you see what I mean.

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Certainly, now, it is a delightful tourist resort,

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and I'm looking out over the placid waters of Lake Champlain

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towards rows of misty Adirondack Mountains in upper-state New York.

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At the time of my guidebook, the lakeside looked very different,

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given that Burlington was a busy timber port.

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Lumber is still an important business,

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but Vermont's relationship with its trees has had its ups and downs.

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To understand more, I'm meeting forester Paul Friedrich.

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Paul, give me an idea of the lumber industry around Burlington at its very peak.

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In Burlington, the peak of the lumber industry

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was really around the 1860s, 1870s, just after the Civil War.

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The Champlain Canal allowed

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canal boats and rafts to go between Lake Champlain and the Hudson River

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and all the way into the New York markets.

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When did people become aware of the need to sustain the trees,

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to make sure that they were renewable?

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That occurred around 1900,

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when folks were beginning to realise that they needed to either replant

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or allow for natural regeneration to occur in these forests,

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and they had to think about the next crop of timber that was coming along

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and not just what we were removing at the time.

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Vermont's forests recovered from their 19th century low point,

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when they stretched across less than a third of the state,

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to cover four fifths of it today.

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The logging railroads did not survive and, nowadays,

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timber is transported by road.

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I'm heading to a family-run sawmill,

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established at the turn of the 20th century, to meet Ken Johnson.

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Ken, do you have any memory yourself of working with the railroads?

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I certainly do. When I was young,

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in my 20s, I remember going to New Haven,

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where we would spend all day loading a railroad car by hand.

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It was a lot of work and I would not wish that on anyone these days.

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Timber from Vermont accounts for 1 billion in sales annually

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and it's used in furniture,

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floorboards and other household items, and for shipping crates.

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The industrial process will certainly have changed since Appleton's day.

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-What are the main jobs?

-Well, we walk by the debarker here,

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which takes the bark off.

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That's the head rig over there, which makes the logs square,

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-like they are here.

-Yeah.

-And there is the resaw,

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which saws around and around and around to try to get the best quality.

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Down at the far end, the trimmer to cut the ends off to give you the

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finished board we see.

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How do you and the people who work with the wood

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-feel about wood?

-We feel it's a wonderful,

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sustainable product that we're proud to be associated with.

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It's renewable, it's recyclable, it rots down,

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it's rot-resistant,

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it has all these wonderful qualities that we're physically in touch with.

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And when the guys here see a trailer-load of lumber

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going out the door, "I made that, I produced that".

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That's a pretty nice feeling.

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For the next part of my journey,

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I'm following the old trade routes across Lake Champlain towards

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Plattsburgh to discover that an important 19th century battle

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between Britain and the United States was fought here.

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"Cumberland Bay," says Appleton's,

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"was the scene of the victory of MacDonagh and McComb over the British

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"naval and land forces under Commodore Downie and Sir George Provost,

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"known as the Battle of Plattsburgh of 1814.

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"Sir George Provost furiously assaulted the town,

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"while the battle raged between the fleets, in full view of the armies.

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"General McComb foiled the repeated assaults of the enemy until the

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"capture of the British fleet."

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After a war in which the United States had been humiliated by the torching

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of the White House in Washington,

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this victory over the familiar enemy,

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the British Empire, was like an entrance onto the world stage.

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To understand more about American General McComb's defeat

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of the British at the Battle of Plattsburgh, I'm joined by military historian Keith Herkalo.

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Keith, how strategic was this waterway, then?

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There were no good roads in New York or Vermont,

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so this was the avenue of trade going south

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and to protect this area for the Saint Lawrence Seaway trade was very,

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very important to the British.

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How did the naval battle progress?

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The naval battle started when the British commander, Downie,

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came around Cumberland Head and turned into the bay.

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Thomas Macdonough performed a manoeuvre called winding ship,

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where he turned his vessel around with the use of his anchors

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and he had a fresh broadside of 13 guns

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and fired into the British warship Confiance.

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Meanwhile, the battle on land, my Appleton's tells me

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that the British had vastly superior numbers to the Americans.

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They did. The British crossed the border with their troops,

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some 11,000 of them.

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How many did General McComb have?

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He really only had 450 blue-coated regulars.

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So, how on earth did 450 defeat an army of more than 10,000?

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Smoke and mirrors.

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McComb created an illusion of a huge force on the other side of the river.

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He marched his full force of 450 troops out of the woods and into

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the full view of the British,

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and then he would send them into the woods and they would come out in a

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different location.

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The illusion was that there were troops arriving day and night.

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As the naval battle raged, British commander Downie was killed

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and, with the supposed threat of a huge land force,

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the British simply surrendered.

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The political consequences were huge.

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At Ghent in the Netherlands,

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the two governments were working on a treaty.

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Now, had the British captured Plattsburgh

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and occupied it and signed the treaty at Ghent in the Netherlands,

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then everything between the two would have been part of British territory

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and part of Canada as we know it today.

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So the border between the United States and Canada would be much further south than it is now.

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Much further south, yes, indeed.

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For Britain, this was a humiliating loss of territory,

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but, for the United States,

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this victory represented a defining moment in their nationhood

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and their emergence as a global power.

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Appleton's describes Plattsburgh as a prosperous village of 7,000 inhabitants.

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TRAIN HORN

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Today, it's a small city of 20,000.

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And there's something rather curious -

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it's high summer.

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But hark...

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# We three kings of Orient are

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# Bearing gifts, we traverse afar

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# Field and fountain, moor and mountain

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# Following yonder star

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# O star of wonder, star of night

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# Star with royal beauty bright

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# Westward leading, still proceeding

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# Guide us to thy perfect light... #

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Excuse me asking - it is the middle of summer -

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why are they singing this lovely Christmas carol?

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Well, this is Trinity Episcopal Church in Plattsburgh, New York

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and we have a very special connection to John Henry Hopkins.

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He was the author of this carol.

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He wrote both the lyrics and the music.

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He did that when he was the music director of General Seminary in New York City in 1857

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and then, when he was ordained, he came here.

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This was his first parish,

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so we consider this our Christmas carol.

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And while he was here, it became very popular worldwide

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and I understand it became very popular in Great Britain.

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Well, I can absolutely confirm that.

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It is one of our favourite carols

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and I don't suppose there are many British people who have any idea

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that it is an American-authored Carol.

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# Guide us to thy perfect... #

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Do you have any idea why it is so popular?

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There's just something about the music that draws you in

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and you feel connected to it.

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-You're drawn in as a child, aren't you?

-Yes.

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-And then it's with you for the rest of your life.

-Yes.

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# Star of wonder, star of night

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# Star with royal beauty bright

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# Westward leading, still proceeding

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# Guide us to thy perfect light. #

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It's a new day,

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and my journey north through New England towards Canada is taking me

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on a short detour southwest to the Adirondack Mountains.

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Following a particularly enticing entry in my guidebook,

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I'm off to the woods today in search of a big surprise.

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19th century glamping, to be precise.

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These sparkling waters are Lake St Regis,

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which Appleton's tells me is one of the most picturesque in the area.

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And here, very wealthy people came to so-called great camps.

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I'm so attracted by the thought of the very well-to-do leaving behind

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all their luxuries and coming here to commune with raw nature.

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It was the son of a railroad baron, William West Durant,

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who built the first camp in this wilderness - Camp Pine Knot.

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His plan was to develop the region for the wealthy

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and more camps were built,

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attracting to the area the great industrial families of the gilded age -

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the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers and Guggenheims.

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I've been invited to one of the largest of the great camps, Camp Topridge,

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established in the 19th century

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and developed in the 20th by New York socialite Marjorie Merriweather Post.

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Hello, Lawrence. Good to see you.

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-Good to see you, sir.

-What a beautiful day.

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I'm arriving in the same manner as lucky guests invited by Marjorie Post.

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Lawrence Lester started work at Camp Topridge in 1953,

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giving him a window into this privileged world.

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What sort of numbers might Mrs Post entertain?

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An average of about 25 and maybe a few more on occasion.

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They loved the serenity of the place, the quietness.

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They usually had a picnic once each week.

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The guests were required to carry the pack baskets and utensils

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and we did the carrying to the boats in-between the paths.

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Large picnics in the forest are a defining feature of life in the great camps,

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a tradition that goes back to the first 19th century visitors,

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who held elaborate feasts in remote woodland.

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My goodness, if this is the boathouse,

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I'm beginning to think this place may not be

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as free from luxury as I'd imagined.

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Indeed, luxuries abound.

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A funicular railway! No rural retreat could be without!

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This, like all the other great camps,

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was built in the particular Adirondack style,

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using the locality's natural materials.

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In addition to the main lodge, there are 18 cottages for guests.

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Heavens, Lawrence, that is amazing!

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And when they stayed in the guest cottages,

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what kind of services did they have there?

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Oh, they usually had a chambermaid assigned to each cabin.

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They had butlers, large staff - probably 80, 85 people.

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-80 or 85 people?

-Yes.

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And probably, I'm guessing probably again, probably 25-30 people, you know, as guests.

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-May we go inside?

-Yes, we certainly can.

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My goodness, Lawrence,

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I think this is one of the biggest rooms I've ever seen.

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There must be, I don't know, places for 100 people to sit in this room.

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What was it like when it was full of people?

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That usually happened on movie nights.

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Mrs Post had movies in here two or three times a week.

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There was a little projection booth up here in back

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and Mrs Post would sit over here, the front row.

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That was a busy time in the main lodge.

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These great camps afforded every amenity that their cosseted occupants might require.

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What do you think it was like for Mrs Post and her guests, this place?

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She enjoyed it very much.

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Mrs Post, I'm sure, found this as quite a sanctuary in her life,

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you know, just being able to be here for those few weeks each year.

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Once the playground of the wealthy, today,

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the Adirondack Mountains are a state park,

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including 3,000 lakes and ponds,

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and my next stop is one of the best known - Lake Placid.

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This became America's first winter resort in 1914

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and has been a centre for competitive sports since the 1920s.

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Lake Placid was the setting for the Winter Olympics 1980

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and beneath me here is the bobsled run

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and, in a few moments, you will see, streaking down the track, the red,

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white and blue of Britain's Union Jack.

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Made from concrete and covered during the winter in ice,

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this track is just under a mile long.

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Racing through its 20 curves,

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athletes can reach speeds of up to 70mph.

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In the summer, wheels replace steel runners on the sleds

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and adrenaline junkies hurtle their way down the lower half of the track.

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-Hello.

-How are we doing?

-So, what are your names?

-I'm Ricky.

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-Hello, Ricky.

-I'm Anthony.

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-Hello, Anthony. I like to know the names of the people I'm entrusting my life to!

-Absolutely!

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So, I jump in there, do I?

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Yes, you're going to sit right behind this seat right here.

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-OK.

-Put your feet right around it for me, OK?

-OK.

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-Oh.

-Right up there.

-All the way down there?

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Yes. That's good, right there.

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Right, we're going to buckle you in so you don't fly out like the last guy did!

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-The last guy flew out?

-Yeah! No, I'm just kidding!

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You're going to hang on right here. I've got a pretty good rec...

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I'm going to hang on here. Seems a good idea.

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When we start going, you're going to sit up nice and straight,

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hang on tight and keep your hands and arms inside the sledge at all times.

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OK. I'm definitely going to do that, all right!

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-TANNOY:

-All right, attention, last part of the track to the half mile.

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I have no idea why I'm doing this! The things I do for my ART!

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Here we go!

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Here we come!

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Every part of me has been shaken to bits

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and I've been turned almost upside down!

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HE LAUGHS

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-That was exciting.

-Good.

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-Glad you enjoyed it.

-Yes, it was a good ride.

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-Thank you for keeping me safe!

-Yeah, no problem. Thanks for coming out.

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Thank you. Whoo!

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I've made my way back to Plattsburgh

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and the comfort of my habitual form of transport.

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I'm finally making my way up towards the United States' border with Canada.

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Amtrak's finest coffee, thank you very much!

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-Have a great day, Mike.

-Have a great day yourself.

-See you again.

-Bye.

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I'll alight just before we reach the border

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for a final stop in the United States.

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Once again, ladies and gentlemen, in just a few more minutes,

0:24:030:24:06

we'll be arriving at Rouses Point.

0:24:060:24:08

Rouses Point, New York, our last stop in New York City.

0:24:080:24:11

-Bye-bye.

-Thanks, have a good one.

0:24:300:24:32

I'm meeting Jim Millward at the site of an American border fort,

0:24:390:24:44

which I understand has a strange and somewhat embarrassing history.

0:24:440:24:48

Jim, Fort Blunder is an usual name.

0:24:490:24:51

-Why is it so called?

-It's called Fort Blunder because the United States Army

0:24:510:24:55

actually built a fort on Canadian property!

0:24:550:24:58

-My goodness!

-Now, it's not what we see behind us.

0:24:580:25:00

This is a later fort, Fort Montgomerie, over here,

0:25:000:25:02

but the fort they were building never had a name.

0:25:020:25:04

It was actually located over here.

0:25:040:25:07

The story was that, back in 1772, two surveyors -

0:25:070:25:10

gentlemen by the name of Valentine and Collins -

0:25:100:25:12

were surveying the boundary line between British Canada and the American colonies

0:25:120:25:16

and the line was the actual the 45th parallel -

0:25:160:25:21

that was what they were to determine -

0:25:210:25:23

and this line was accepted as the true line.

0:25:230:25:25

There were no questions for many, many years.

0:25:250:25:28

Then, shortly after the war of 1812, when the Treaty of Ghent came along,

0:25:280:25:31

one of the provisions of the Treaty of Ghent was that this line would be

0:25:310:25:34

re-surveyed and they came to recognise that, right away,

0:25:340:25:39

there was a serious problem.

0:25:390:25:41

It was actually south of where they actually showed the line.

0:25:410:25:44

That shouldn't have been a problem,

0:25:440:25:46

except that the issue was that there's an enormous American fort

0:25:460:25:49

almost completely finished right smack dab in Canadian territory.

0:25:490:25:53

So, if I'm understanding you,

0:25:530:25:55

it was thought that the boundary between the United States and Canada was here, the fort goes in here

0:25:550:26:00

and then they subsequently discovered that the real frontier is down here.

0:26:000:26:03

-Yeah.

-Whoops! What was the solution?

0:26:030:26:06

The Americans obviously had to abandon it

0:26:060:26:08

and the Americans never gave up hope of trying to get it back.

0:26:080:26:12

It took two statesmen, our Daniel Webster and your Lord Ashburton,

0:26:120:26:16

to get together in 1842 to forge the Webster-Ashburton Treaty.

0:26:160:26:20

But one of the fascinating things it did is it actually adjusted the

0:26:200:26:23

boundary line, if you will, just to accommodate this fort,

0:26:230:26:27

so there is this anomaly.

0:26:270:26:28

The line of 45 is actually the boundary of most of the place, except here,

0:26:280:26:34

where it juts up a little tiny bit to accommodate this property

0:26:340:26:38

-that we're standing on.

-So we're standing on a little bump of the United States?

-We certainly are.

0:26:380:26:43

And, so, this nameless fort was then christened Fort Blunder.

0:26:430:26:47

Yes, and it seemed like a pretty appropriate name.

0:26:470:26:50

Fortunately, the need for a defensive fort on this border is long gone,

0:26:520:26:57

but the blunder is merely a curious note in the history books.

0:26:570:27:01

Had the British not lost the Battles of Plattsburgh,

0:27:090:27:12

the territory through which I've been travelling recently would have been Canada.

0:27:120:27:17

As it is, Lake Placid could be the showcase for the United States at Winter Olympics

0:27:170:27:22

and, if I may say so with all modesty,

0:27:220:27:26

the scene today of a Great British triumph in the bobsleigh.

0:27:260:27:30

The wooded hills of America's border country have been a great source of

0:27:300:27:34

lumber and their beauty attracted the very wealthy to great camps.

0:27:340:27:40

I now bid farewell to Britain's one-time enemy

0:27:400:27:44

and now long-time ally,

0:27:440:27:46

and I shall resume my adventure across the border in Canada.

0:27:460:27:50

TRAIN HORN

0:27:520:27:55

Next time, I'll explore the island city of Montreal,

0:27:550:27:59

where I'll plunge into the history of the Saint Lawrence River...

0:27:590:28:02

Imagine doing this in a paddle steamer!

0:28:020:28:06

..uncover some surprises in Montreal's top university...

0:28:060:28:09

As far as I know, I'm the only librarian whose library has a body count!

0:28:090:28:13

..and run away to join the circus.

0:28:130:28:17

Time to put the sunshine in the Circus of the Sun!

0:28:170:28:20

Michael Portillo continues his American rail journey through New England as he heads for the Canadian border. First stop is Burlington, Vermont, a busy timber port at the time of his Appleton's guide. Michael ventures deep into the forest to learn how sustainable and technological innovations have transformed the state's billion dollar logging industry.

Following the old trade route across Lake Champlain, he hears of a pivotal battle during the War of 1812 where a British defeat gave the United States a new confidence on the world stage. In Plattsburg, Michael learns of the surprising origins of a classic Christmas carol.

Lead by his guidebook, he travels into the wilderness of the Adirondack Mountains. Here the rich and famous of Appleton's day established great camps to get back to nature, in the lap of luxury. He visits the largest of the camps, reached by boat and even a private funicular railway. In Lake Placid, Michael braves the steep curves and speeds of an Olympic bobsleigh run. Last stop is an American fort mistakenly built in Canada!