The Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area recently placed a new monument at Jennings Landing on the Hudson River marking an Albany stop on the Knox Cannon Trail.
The story of the Noble Artillery Train is one of ingenuity and pure grit. It was critical to America winning the Revolution.
Colonel Henry Knox started out as a bookseller from Boston who became a colonel (and ultimately a general) in the Continental Army. In fall 1775 someone (Knox or General Washington? – no one knows for sure) came up with a genius idea.
Retrieve the cannon at Fort Ticonderoga (captured by Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys earlier in the year) and at Crown Point, and get them to Boston to assist in the siege of the British Army. George Washington commissioned the task to the 25 year old Knox , said it should be done at all costs and allocated 1,000 pounds to cover expenses.
Easier said than done
It would require a journey of almost 300 miles in the middle of Northeastern winter. The trip took 40 days, crossed a lake, streams and rivers. Much of it was made through knee and waist deep snow.
The expedition began in late November 1775. 59 cannon and other armaments from the Fort and Crown Point were selected and disassembled. The total weight was about 60,000 tons. The first part of the journey was over Lake George; the cannon were placed on 3 boats (one sank near Sabbath Day Point, but the cannon were retrieved). Knox had his men construct 42 sledges/sleighs to drag the cannon and hired 80 teams of oxen.* It would take weeks to make it to the Albany. It was slow going when there was no snow, but not much easier when it did (on one day there was a 2 ft. snow fall).
Albany and Thin Ice
Knox was in the advance guard and reached Albany on Christmas. He and his men “were almost perished with cold”. He met with General Philip Schuyler (who was sitting this one out for health reasons). There he negotiated for more oxen, but ended up with horses, and found more men to go north to help bring the cannons south. The first cannons reached Albany on January 4th, 1776.
But the weather had warmed and there was no way to get the cannon and sledges across the Hudson’s thin ice until the weather changed. Knox and some men spent New Year’s Day making holes in the Hudson River ice and letting it re-freeze in the hope it would become thick enough to the hold the cannon.
Meanwhile the people of Albany were thrilled to be part of this event, though they had no idea how important in history it would become.
In early January the Train set out again, crossing the Hudson, but not without mishap. One cannon sank, and the people of Albany came to Knox’s rescue.
From Knox’s diary:
(Jan) “8th. Went on the Ice About 8 oClock in the morning & proceeded so cautiously that before night we got over three sleds & were so lucky as to get the Cannon out of the River, owing to the assistance the good people of the City of Albany gave, In return for which we christen’d her – The Albany.”
Who knew? A cannon at the siege of Boston that was named after the “good people of the City of Albany”!
The rest of the journey, through the Berkshires and on to Boston was more slogging through snow. Knox reached Dorchester Heights, a promontory outside of that city, in late January 1776. It took a while but the guns were finally strategically placed, and shelling from the cannon began to rain down on the British ships in the harbor in early March 1776. The British left Boston several weeks later. The end of the siege was tremendous morale booster for the Americans after a 10 month stalemate. But they would suffer through another year and half of mostly defeats before the Battle of Saratoga in October, 1777.
Who were the men of the Train?
It’s curious there’s almost nothing known about the specific men who performed a nigh on to impossible achievement for Knox. They weren’t members of the Continental Army regiments (who at that time were engaged in the Battle of Quebec – an American defeat). Knox appears to have brought some engineers with him from Massachusetts, and acquired other men while he made a stop in New York City before proceeding north to Ticonderoga. But we feel sure there must have been some local men, including men from what is now Vermont. Men who knew the terrain, who understood the topography of the land between Lake George, through Saratoga and south.
We know that once Knox reached Albany he recruited additional men to go north to help speed the expedition and found additional men for the next leg of the journey – east to Boston. They were probably men from the Albany County Militia. Sadly, their names are lost to time. They must have been farmers, blacksmiths, carpenters, sail makers (like one of my multi-great grandfathers). Who knows who else? Just part of the great citizen army that supported the ideals of freedom in the face of Tyranny. They were hardly the “summer time soldiers” Thomas Paine railed against.
The Train Historical Markers
In 1926, the 150th anniversary of Knox’s march, New York and Massachusetts erected 59 historical markers in the two states that traced the route over which the expedition passed.
There were 3 markers in Albany County. One marker was placed at 99 Purtell Rd. in Colonie. It’s since been moved and is now located on Rte. 9 in front of Troy Landscape Supply, just below the Mohawk River.
There were 2 markers in the city of Albany. The northern most marker was located at 339 Northern Blvd., which we believe is near the boundary of the old Philip Livingston Jr High School in Dudley Heights. It’s been moved to the edge of a strip mall opposite Memorial Hospital.
The second marker was placed in what was Riverside Park (191 Broadway), a one acre area created as an inner city playground and park next to Steamboat Square in the early 1900s. What was left of the Park almost vanished in 1932/1933 with the construction of the ramps for the first Dunn Memorial Bridge. What remained was buried under Route 787 construction in the late 1960s and early 1970sred.
*At Fort George Knox wrote Washington about the “noble train of artillery”.
Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor