Lights in the Night at Niagara Falls

A custom energy-efficient LED lighting system that produces a rainbow of colors nightly at Niagara Falls State Park is a far cry from the simple technology used at the start of the Civil War when the falls were illuminated for the first time in honor of a visiting English prince.

The evening of Sept. 14, 1860, the falls were lit up for a short time using so-called Bengal lights, which were a centuries-old type of chemical flare that burned with bluish light. While it worked for the prince’s visit, this short-term and cumbersome method of lighting the falls was not to be used again.

A few years later, a new technology developed during the recently concluded Civil War came to the world-famous falls.  Spotlights used then were powered by heating up piles of calcium quicklime until it glowed brightly, which is the origin of the phrase of putting something “in the limelight.” Union forces had used such spotlights during the war to illuminate Confederate positions at night.

The emerging technology of electric lights arrived at the falls in 1879 to herald the arrival of an official couple from the government of Canada. More than two decades then passed before Walter D’Arcy Ryan, an innovative lighting engineer with Schenectady-based General Electric Co., designed a massive new searchlight system in 1907 that used colored gelatin films changed by hand to project different colors onto the face of the falls.

For 30 nights in a row in 1907, Ryan used 44 searchlights with colored filters, and powered with steam engines, to illuminate the entirety of Niagara Falls for the first time. Following this acclaimed success, he was named head of GE’s Illuminating Engineering Laboratory, the world’s first institution for research into lighting, created the following year in Schenectady.

According to the New York Tribune of Sept. 5, 1907, Niagara Falls looked far more dramatic lit up at night such that “words fail to describe the magnificence of the spectacle”. Another observer wrote: “It was a riot of glorious beauty, so new, so strange, so marvelous – so like some unearthly and unexplained magic that it held the spectator startled, then spellbound, speechless and delighted.”

Officials pose with the General Electric searchlight system used to illuminate Niagara Falls in these undated photographs. (Photo Credit- NYS Parks)

Ryan’s system was incredibly powerful for its day, producing more than 1 billion candela (a measurement of luminous intensity). That was the equivalent to more 8.3 million standard 110-watt lightbulbs!

By then, the illumination of the falls was proving to be an increasingly popular attraction, and in 1925 a joint U.S.-Canadian group was formed to manage and operate lighting – the Niagara Falls Illumination Board. The five-member board saw to it that new, even more powerful electric lights were installed for a ceremony that year. Lights were upgraded again in 1958, 1974, and 1997.

Today, visitors to Niagara Falls State Park are witnessing the work of an array of energy efficient LED lights that was installed in 2016. This $4 million custom system produces any color desired and has twice as much illumination as the previous lights, producing an enormous 8 billion candela. (For the lighting techies, that is more than eight times more powerful that the turn-of-the-century GE system, equivalent to the illumination from 66.6 million standard 110-watt lightbulbs!)

The array contains 12,600 LED lights, evenly divided among red, blue, green, and white. Red, blue, and green are the primary colors of light in physics and adjusting the ratios of each produces the full palette of colors. When all three colors are equally combined, that produces white light. The system at Niagara is powerful enough to span the 1,900 feet needed to reach the both the American and Horseshoe Falls.

A technician tests the new LED lighting system at Niagara Falls. (Photo Credit- Mulvey & Banani Lighting Inc.)

Click this slideshow below to see aspects of the LED array, including a close-up of the lights, their appearance once grouped, and use in action.

A schematic of how the LED light beams illuminate American Falls and Horseshoe Falls. (Photo Credit- Mulvey & Banani Lighting Inc.)

This unique custom system was designed by a consortium of companies including ECCO Electric Ltd., Salex Inc., Mulvey & Banani Lighting Inc., Sceneworks, and Stanley Electric. To test whether the LEDs could cast beams of light the distance needed, the crew successfully tested mockup systems across a lake in Ontario and along an abandoned aircraft runway!

The lights are operated via computer but can also be operated by two staff members who watch guard over the lights each night. They can even be programmed to perform shows such as “Inspired by Nature” which features colors and movements inspired by nature, including the sunrise, aurora borealis, rainbows and sunset.

Today the world-famous falls are lit up every night of the year in an ever-changing light show, the colors chosen to reflect a wide variety of causes, events, and people, all of which reviewed and approved by the board.

On June 15th, 2021, for example, the falls were illuminated in the official New York State colors of blue and gold in celebration of reaching 70 percent of New York adults receiving their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

In 2016, when Queen Elizabeth turned 90 on April 21, the falls were colored purple in her honor. It did cause a bit of unintended confusion.  The musician formerly known as Prince, who was closely associated with purple, died the same day so many people mistakenly thought the lighting was for him!

Other recent illumination highlights might be less well-known, including highlighting of the Republic of Bashkortostan, Wrongful Conviction Day, and Dress Purple Day, Bullying Prevention Month, Latvian Independence Day, and Dysautonomia awareness.

The falls have been illuminated blue to mark playoff appearances of the NFL Buffalo Bills, purple and gold to mark the tragic death of NBA star Kobe Bryant, a combination of red, white, and gold to honor the Canada’s gold-medal Olympic women’s soccer team, and blue and green for the Canadian professional basketball team Niagara River Lions.

The falls also have been lighted green for St. Patrick’s Day, rainbow colors for Pride Month, blue to mark the 70th anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and red to welcome Chinese New Year.

One night a year, March 26, the falls go dark for an hour in honor of Earth Hour, a global initiative aimed at drawing attending to ongoing human-induced climate change. Click on the slideshow below to see some of Niagara Fall’s amazing colors!

With the ability to shine light through mist and flood both the American Falls and Horseshoe Falls with every color under the sky, the nightly illumination is the highlight of any visit to Niagara.

Hours of illumination vary by seasonal timing of nightfall, starting between 4:30 and 8:30 p.m., and wrapping up from 1 to 2 a.m. With the earlier nightfall in winter, the falls are illuminated earlier in the evening. When the falls freeze in the winter, creating massive ice formations, the lights take on another beautiful dimension.

The Illumination Board is an example of international cooperation between the U.S. and Canada, with its membership consisting of New York State Parks, Niagara Parks (Canada), the New York Power Authority, Ontario Hydro (Canada) and the cities of Niagara Falls in both the U.S. and Canada, which pay annual dues to cover the expenses associated with this special attraction.

The group is also charged with fulfilling requests for lighting for charitable organizations, special causes, global events, and other special occasions.  As the Falls is such a global icon, hundreds of requests are received each year.

Under board rules, requests cannot be considered for commercial purposes, personal occasions like birthdays or marriage proposals, religious or political events, and institutions, such as hospitals and schools.

Be sure to include an overnight on your next visit to Niagara Falls to catch the illumination. Pro tip: The best viewing from the American side is from Terrapin Point or Prospect Point.

Check out the schedule of lightings and learn more about the nightly illumination here.

Post by Angela Berti, Marketing and Public Affairs Coordinator, Niagara Region, NYS Parks

Watch this Youtube video below by Mulvey & Banani Lighting to learn more about how the Niagara Falls are illuminated…


Learn more about the color of light from the American Museum of Natural History.

Eclipse of the Beaver Moon

Starting in the wee hours of Friday, November 19, the upcoming Beaver Moon eclipse will be the longest partial lunar eclipse in six centuries, clocking in at nearly 3 ½ hours. Visible throughout North American, this celestial occurrence also is a reminder that stargazing nights are among many events available at State Parks, some of which have relationships with local astronomy clubs.

But to start, a naturalist question: Why is this upcoming full moon that will undergo this eclipse called the Beaver Moon? Well, according to state DEC naturalist Tom Lake, this description originates with the Indigenous peoples of the Northeast, who in November observed that beaver would stock up provisions to get through the coming winter when ponds, lakes, and other waterways freeze over. Beaver instinctively collect forage, including branches, limbs, even small trees, dragging it into their ponds, and securing it on the bottom for later retrieval as needed during the cold and ice of mid-winter.

The Beaver Moon, as illustrated by The Old Farmer’s Almanac.

Now, what about this lunar eclipse? What will happen, when will it happen and how best to observe it? According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, during the peak of the eclipse, the earth’s shadow will cover 97 percent of the moon’s surface, likely casting the moon in a dark, rusty reddish color.

The partial eclipse phase will last 3 hours, 28 minutes and 24 seconds, making it the longest partial eclipse in nearly 600 years! But to see this cosmic dance of earth, moon and sun unfold, two things are needed: Clear nighttime skies and a willingness to be awake when most people normally are asleep.

When the eclipse starts at 1:02 a.m. on Nov. 19, as the earth begins to pass between the sun and the moon, the changes initially will be subtle and difficult to see. That is because the earth actually casts two types of shadows _ a lighter, broader shadow known as the penumbra and a full, dark shadow, called the umbra. After initially entering the penumbra, the full moon will start entering the umbra at 2:18 a.m., gradually darkening and reddening until maximum eclipse is reached at 4:02 a.m. The moon then will start exiting the umbra, followed by the penumbra, until the eclipse ends completely at 7:03 a.m.

This graphics shows the progress of the eclipse. Note, the times shown are in Universal Time (UT). The local times in Eastern Standard Time are part of the description above this graphic. Photo Credit- NASA/Sky & Telescope

No special equipment is needed to safely observe a lunar eclipse, unlike a solar eclipse, which should never be looked at directly without special protective gear. A pair of binoculars can reveal more detail of the moon’s surface. For photography buffs, NASA has tips here for how to best photograph the moon and eclipses.

In State Parks’ Long Island Region, several Parks will remain open for those who want to observe the Beaver Moon eclipse. A requirement for a stargazing permit, which is normally needed to be in those parks after normal operating hours, is being waived for this event.

Long Island State Parks that will remain open for viewing are:

Upstate, the light pollution that present around metropolitan New York City is not as much of an issue, so finding a place to see the eclipse will be relatively simple.

Some of the darkest night skies in the New York are found in the Adirondack Region, and the John Brown Farm State Historic Site outside of Lake Placid will be open that night and morning with a telescope available for visitors who want to see the Beaver Moon eclipse.

And for those interested in astronomy, keep in mind that State Parks offer a variety of stargazing events throughout the year, with a calendar listing available here.

Some Parks also host events by local astronomy clubs, like the Mid-Hudson Astronomy Association in the Hudson Valley which has a Dec. 3 public event at Lake Taghkanic State Park and the Rockland Astronomy Club, which has an November 27 event at the Anthony Wayne Area at Harriman State Park and Dec. 8 event at Rockefeller State Park Preserve. Rockefeller State Park Preserve also hosts free monthly stargazing events, with a Rockland Astronomy Club member donating use of telescope and his expertise. The next such event is Dec. 2.

At Moreau Lake State Park in Saratoga County, a telescope will be is expected available for visitors on the night of Dec. 14 for the Geminids meteor shower, which can produce up to 120 meteors a minute. Fort Niagara State Park will also be open Dec. 13 for the meteor shower.

At Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve on Staten Island, a Winter Solstice Astronomy Night will be held Dec. 18, hosted by Professor Harold Kozak, a NASA Solar System Ambassador.

Before making a trip, always call the specific park in advance to ensure such weather-dependent events are being held as scheduled.

And for those who aren’t able get outside the coming Beaver Moon eclipse, check out a virtual online telescope event for that night. Happy viewing!

This chart shows the Beaver Moon lunar eclipse will be visible. (Photo Credit- NASA JPL/Caltech.
Maybe I’ll stay up late to see the Beaver Moon Eclipse! (Photo Credit- NYS DEC)

Cover Shot- Lunar Eclipse (Photo Credit- NASA)

Post by Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer, NYS Parks

The Life and Times of Gonzo the Black Vulture

On July 22, 1997, Gonzo the Black Vulture stepped timidly onto northern soil for the first time at the Trailside Museums and Zoo at Bear Mountain State Park in the Hudson Valley. Born five years earlier at the Memphis Zoo, and later transferred to the Nashville Zoo, where he served as and education ambassador, Gonzo had made a northbound journey many members of his species would later take.

Early on in his career, Gonzo had developed a significant droop in his left wing, prompting surgery for a partial amputation to aid in his mobility. During his surgery, veterinarians discovered that Gonzo also suffered an irregular heartbeat.  While it would be an early retirement from commercial zoo life, Gonzo would not be arriving alone in New York’s strange and unfamiliar landscape.

Gonzo in his enclosure at the Trailside Museums and Zoo at Bear Mountain State Park.

Like Gonzo himself, black vultures are historically southerners. They are a neotropical species ranging from South America to Virginia, which remained the case up to the mid-20th century. However, beginning in the 1980’s and increasingly ever since, black vultures have been engaging in a northward expansion.

Sixteen years prior to Gonzo’s arrival at Trailside, the first ever black vulture was recorded in New York state at Minnewaska State Park Preserve on November 1, 1981 by Dan Smiley, a resident naturalist at the nearby Mohonk Preserve.  In 1997, the same year as Gonzo’s arrival, the first black vulture “nest” was recorded nearby on the eastern side of Bonticou Crag in Ulster County by Joe Bridges, a research associate with the Mohonk Preserve. The term “nest” is to be taken lightly, as black vultures aren’t much for creature comforts.  Like all new world vulture species, black vultures forego building nests instead opting for hard-to-reach rocky crags and recesses in caves, hollow logs, brush piles, thickets, and abandoned buildings to lay their clutch of eggs.

For Gonzo’s first years at Trailside, his neighbors outside his enclosure would consist primarily of his slightly larger and keen-smelling counterpart, the turkey vulture, which was the dominant vulture species in the Hudson Highlands at the time. Black vultures such as Gonzo lack the turkey vulture’s sense of smell, instead relying their sharp eyesight while coasting thermals to forage for meals.  Unable to smell carrion, black vultures have adapted a new strategy, relying instead on turkey vultures to do the work for them.  To find food, all black vultures need to do is keep an eye on the lower-soaring turkey vultures. Once the turkey vulture descends, the black vulture follows close behind.

How to tell a black vulture from a turkey vulture


Since his early days at Trailside, Gonzo bore witness to a population boom in New York of his species, a black vulture golden age. The latest large-scale survey of New York birds was performed during 2000 to 2005, splitting the state into 5,000 geographic blocks.  It confirmed black vulture nests in five blocks and reported suspected nests in 100; a significant increase since the last survey, performed during 1980 to 1985, which reported no found or suspected nests. Since then, its safe to say that the population has continued to increase as evidenced on local Christmas Bird Counts and the community science site eBird.org.

As to why the black vultures have taken up this avian manifest destiny to spread into New York, we are left only to speculate. Climate change may be a driving factor, turning New York’s colder climate into something milder and more habitable for black vultures.  However, the black vulture’s range has shifted northward only along the eastern seaboard from Virginia, and along the Hudson River north to the St. Lawrence, with little change in the Midwest.

 Other possible causes include an increase in deer and other mammal populations, and vehicle traffic, leading to increased food availability from roadkill, and greater tolerance of the species and increased protection under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

The range of the black vulture in North America is extending northward. The darker purple regions is where the birds are common, while the lighter regions are where the vultures are spreading, but less commonly found. (Photo credit – Audubon Society)

Despite being called “vultures”, black vultures and other new world species bear little similarity to old world species. Their common characteristics are a result of convergent evolution, or traits selected for a similar lifestyle.  Both share bald featherless heads, perfect for rooting around in carcasses without ruffling any feathers. Both share similar circular flight patterns, utilizing the energy saving tactic of coasting on thermals. And both share the same highly corrosive digestive system; the PH of a black vulture’s stomach acid rests just above 0, akin to car battery acid and nearly 100 times as concentrated as human stomach acid.

Black vultures are instead more closely related to storks with whom they share an interesting, yet effective means of thermoregulation[1]. If a warming climate is the culprit behind the black vulture’s expansion, they will, without a doubt, continue to thrive in warmer climates thanks to urohidrosis; or the habit in some birds of defecating onto the scaly portion of the legs as a cooling method, using evaporative cooling of the fluids.

[1] Thermoregulation is the ability of an organism to keep its body temperature within certain boundaries, even when the surrounding temperatures is very different

Additionally, keeping in mind that a black vulture’s stomach acid is highly acidic, they produce a sterile excrement which cleanses their feet of bacteria and parasites, which may accumulate due to their scavenger lifestyle. Two birds with one stone, if you will

 Black vultures will also simultaneously thermoregulate and sanitize through the process of sunbathing.  Often observed with wings out and backs to the sun, these birds are warming their bodies while utilizing the UV radiation from sunlight to kill bacteria and parasites on their feathers.

As adults, black vultures experience few predators. Their main threat comes in the form of nest predation either by raccoons or foxes.  Despite their relative safety, vultures still maintain a gruesome defense mechanism against predation; defensive vomiting. Utilizing their stomach acid once more, black vultures are able to produce a foul smelling and corrosive vomit that acts as a deterrent and mace for predators.

In addition to clever adaptations, black vultures themselves are undoubtedly intelligent birds, this trait being readily observable in Gonzo and other captive black vultures. Gonzo observed and interacted with the world around him with great curiosity.  Behind his soulful brown eyes, there was a spectacular presence, a timid and gentle personality with an almost irrefutable perception and understanding.

The social intelligence hypothesis posits that human “intelligence” has evolved in order to adapt to complex interpersonal relations and is generally accepted in the current theory of evolution. It is believed that as the size of the group increases, it becomes necessary to adapt to more complex social relationships within the group, driving the selective pressures for increased neocortex size.  Black vultures are not exempt from this theory, belonging to flocks largely composed of family units and roosting in large masses in the evening.

At Trailside, where the black vultures seemed to have designated the bear exhibit as their daytime roost, their community engagements can be observed through mutual preening, playful chasing, food sharing, and the occasional scuffle. But perhaps the best example of their sociality was seen with Gonzo.

 Confined to his exhibit, Gonzo began receiving vulture visitors, and over the years they grew in number to the point which on any given day a sizeable flock of wild black vultures could be seen mingling with Gonzo. Perhaps they were assessing the mystery as to why this member of their species was captive, putting their bald little heads together in a sort of vulture think-tank, or perhaps, lacking his own flock, the wild vultures assimilated him into their own.

Keepers at Trailside have observed on numerous occasions, the passing of food between cage bars to the flock; perhaps, an altruistic sharing of of a captive bird’s bounty. Food sharing in wild vultures is typically only observed within members of the same family.  Perhaps Gonzo viewed this flock as a sort of family. Between shared mice and fish, did the vultures swap tales of harsh winters, open skies, and a northbound journey? Voiceless secrets told hushed through throats lacking a syrinx[2]

[2] The syrinx is the lower larynx or voice organ in birds, situated at or near the junction of the trachea and bronchi and well developed in songbirds

Because Black vultures lack the organ responsible for birdsong in many species, their vocal repertoire consists mainly of huffs, grunts, and hisses. Click here to hear a recording of a black vulture from the The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Macaulay Library.

On the black vulture’s sociability, Charles Darwin wrote:

 “These vultures certainly may be called gregarious, for they seem to have pleasure in society, and are not solely brought together by the attraction of a common prey. On a fine day a flock may often be observed at a great height, each bird wheeling round and round without closing its wings, in the most graceful evolutions. This is clearly performed for the mere pleasure of the exercise, or perhaps is connected with their matrimonial alliances.”

It certainly does appear that black vultures perform many activities through the sheer pleasure the action brings.  Play is widely regarded as a hallmark of intelligence in birds, observable in both crows and ravens.  It is an activity which helps an individual gain information regarding its environment; and play in many forms can be observed in the vultures of Bear Mountain.  In the bear den and along the zoo trail, black vultures can be seen taking turns chasing each other, tossing about hay, playing with sticks and feathers, ripping apart paper bags, tugging on the mesh of exhibits.

Trailside’s resident black bear, Sadie, shares her exhibit with a wild black vulture.

Play is also one of the reasons many Hudson Valley residents are at odds with vultures. In their exploration of this world, it turns out black vultures can be quite destructive. Their favorite pastimes including tearing rubber from windshield wipers, and shingles from roofs.

Several years ago the Bear Mountain Inn experienced nearly $10,000 in roofing damage by black vultures and, as of 2017, black vultures are estimated to have cause nearly $75,000 in damages statewide. Much like teenagers, if you have enough black vultures in one place without enough to do, they’re bound to get up to trouble. As a consequence, many Hudson Valley businesses and residents are now flying in face of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and federal law, taking up arms against the vultures. Several methods of deterrence include lasers, sprinklers, pyrotechnics, trapping and effigies; but with a population on the rise, conflict with humans is only more likely to increase.

On the other side of the coin, black vultures are a necessary asset to our ecosystem, serving as “nature’s cleanup crew” feeding on the dead and diseased other carnivores wouldn’t dare venture near, their stomach acid allowing them to safely digest putrid carcasses infected with rabies, botulinum toxin, hog cholera bacteria, and anthrax bacteria that would be lethal to other scavengers. Their work halts the further transmission of these diseases between humans and other wildlife, a role which, in the age of a zoonotic pandemic like COVID-19, is paramount.

For all those still at odds with the black vulture, Gonzo served as a shining exemplar of his species positive qualities, and magnificent beauty, connecting the black vulture in the minds of many to a handsome bird, with a quiet, yet inquisitive personality.

Gonzo passed away at Trailside on Tuesday, June 22, 2021 at 29 ½ years old. While longevity records for black vultures are scarce, Gonzo may have well been one of the oldest specimens in captivity.  He leaves behind the legacy of being one of New York’s pioneer black vultures, who instilled a passion and understanding for his species in many visitors.

Gonzo is survived by his flock, a family he made all his own, the wild vultures of Trailside. Months later, the occasional solemn vulture could still be seen idling outside what was once his aviary, wearing all black feathers, dressed as if for mourning.

Gonzo gives himself a health sunbath.

Post and photographs by Malerie Muratori, Student Conservation Association intern at Trailside Zoo.

Life Imitates Art: Parks and Rec Star At Thacher State Park

When John Boyd Thacher State Park Manager Bill Hein got a call saying that Ron Swanson was going to visit his park, he thought it was a prank. It’s not every day that you get a visit from a celebrity, but that’s just what happened when Parks and Recreation star Nick Offerman visited this  State Park in rural Albany County last month to promote his newest book on the network news program CBS Mornings.

The 51-year actor played the deadpan, gruff, libertarian head of small city parks department on the critically acclaimed series, which ran from 2009 to 2015. As fans know, Offerman in real life is a passionate woodworker, making furniture, canoes, and boats, and is the husband of actress Megan Mullally, who is best known for starring on the sitcom Will & Grace.  She was filming locally, so CBS producers looking for a picturesque natural Capital Region location for their interview with Offerman chose Thacher Park for its sweeping views from the Helderberg Escarpment.

The Helderberg Escarpment at Thacher State Park at sunrise.

Joining CBS anchor Anthony Mason, Offerman started his morning with sunrise fishing at Thacher’s Thompson’s Lake. While there, the two discussed Offerman’s background. Born and raised in Illinois, Offerman has penned a new book (Where the Deer and the Antelope Play) that reads like a love letter to the outdoors and a reflection on our shared responsibility to act as stewards of our environment. It isn’t his first book but may be his most poignant – set against the backdrop of some of the nation’s most incredible natural sites, including Glacier National Park. His best advice? Get outside!

“In my book, with a sense of humor, I’m trying to remind everybody … to get out. If you don’t know what the poison ivy or poison oak situation is, then you’re not getting deep enough in the woods,” he said.

Read this interview that Offerman gave to the Los Angeles Times about the book and some of his outdoor adventuring that inspired it.

Getting outside is just what he did at Thacher, a flagship park in the eight-county Saratoga-Capital Region. After a morning fishing at the lake (with no catch to show for it), Offerman and Mason enjoyed a hike along Thacher’s famous limestone escarpment. Sitting atop the Indian Ladder Trail, the overlook has a panoramic view that stretches to Albany, down the Hudson Valley, and east into neighboring Vermont.

Punctuating the visual splendor was a roaring waterfall, flowing with gusto from a string of summer rain showers. Offerman couldn’t contain his glee. “We don’t have this in Illinois,” he said.

Nick Offerman chats with Parks staffer Ray Muniz.
Fishing is only one of the activities available at Thompson’s Lake. Featuring 140 campsites, the park also has volleyball court, horseshoe pits, a playing field, swingsets, carry-in boat access, canoes, kayaks, and stand-up paddleboards, fishing areas, and nature trails. The lake is open for ice fishing in the winter.

Settling down on a picnic table to continue the interview, Offerman stopped, pulled out his handy Leatherman multi-tool and tightened up a few screws he thought might be coming loose, much like his Parks and Recreation character, who was really into tools, maintenance, and repair. Offerman reflected on his penchant for woodworking with Mason throughout the interview. It’s a hobby so central to his story – and so unique for an actor – that it was written into his character, who in one episode received a fictional award for woodcraft.

As the crew wrapped up from its morning shoot, Offerman met with some of our real-life Parks and Rec staff, including Regional Director Alane Chinian, Park Manager Bill Hein, and Environmental Educator Savannah Wilson. Hein, an avid fan, even brought copies of Offerman’s previous books. In true Ron Swanson fashion, Offerman was generous with his time, cracking jokes, answering questions, and offering autographs.

Offerman chats with Parks Student Conservation Association members Anna Pirkey and Grace Brennan (l-r).
Saratoga-Capital Regional Director Alane Ball-Chinian, Anna Pirkey, Nick Offerman, Grace Brennan, Thacher Park Manager Bill Hein, and Parks Environmental Educator Analyst Assistant Savannah Wilson.

“I had heard Nick mention Aldo Leopold during part of the taping and that kind of struck a chord with me,” Hein said. “I had read “A Sand County Almanac” in my earlier years and Leopold’s writing on killing wolves in the Southwest helped show me the importance of conservation and the delicate balance that nature lies in. It helped me solidify the career choice I was making out of college.”

Hein had brought with him a copy of Offerman’s earlier book “Paddle Your Own Canoe” for him to autograph. Beneath his signature, he wrote two words: “To Mirth.”

Offerman signs a book for Thacher Park Manager Bill Hein.

Before leaving Thacher, Offerman had one last compliment to offer Parks staff. “I love your office,” he said, gesturing to the escarpment. “Thank you for the work that you do.”

And thank you, Nick Offerman and CBS Mornings, for helping bring a bit of the beauty of Thacher State Park to a national audience. With its spectacular views and 25 miles of trails spread across some 2,500 acres for hiking, mountain biking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling, it is truly a year-round destination!


Cover Shot- Nick Offerman. All photos by NYS Parks

Post by Rey Muniz, Public Affairs Manager, Saratoga-Capital Region, NYS Parks

 

Mysteries At Crown Point

Crown Point State Historic Site lies at the tip of a peninsula, jutting northward into Lake Champlain, a place at one time quite remote with a unique history at the crossroads of war, laced with more than a few tales of folklore, mystery, and imagination befitting the Halloween season.

A calico patchwork in fall of orange, red and gold, the Adirondack Mountains flank the western shore of the lake while the Green Mountains of Vermont rise along the eastern side, just beyond the farmland of the valley floor.  It is a majestic, glorious landscape with a sky so expansive, it is a daily reminder of our small place in this universe, a place where young 18th century soldiers who once manned this stone fortress must have felt far removed from the rest of the world they knew

As twilight approaches, the breath and expanse of this geography folds into itself as the darkness envelops the mountains and lake.   The mere depth of the night is unnerving enough but without the benefit of sight, sounds are amplified in the deep black of the understory of the trees. Owls calling above and rustling in the brush below are reminders of how vulnerable we seem in the vast darkness of this wilderness even today.

Located in Essex County, Crown Point has been on both the historic State and National Registers of Historic Places since 1976, significant as the location of ruins of the French-built Fort St. Frederic (1734) and the British fort, H.M. Fort at Crown Point (1759), the largest fortification erected on the North American continent at the time.  The French and British fought bitterly for decades over control of this place – precisely because of the sightlines the majestic landscape could afford those who wanted command of the waters of Lake Champlain, pointed like a silver dagger from Canada into the heart of Colonial New England.

NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation endeavors to preserve the Crown Point ruins in their current state as part of the 1910 stewardship agreement when New York State was gifted the property.  One of the defining features of the site are the officers and soldiers’ barracks in the British parade grounds, stones silently stacked and hidden behind the fort walls.  The structures are missing stairways, second story flooring and roofs; there is an ethereal quality upon viewing them, when conscious of the intended permanence of these structures and the ravages of time since people lived, worked, suffered and died within.

Take the darkness of night, mix with centuries old ruins, top off with harrowing local lore and this proves to be the perfect elixir of sinister, spooky, and spine-chilling. Visitors to the Haunted Histories at the Forts scheduled for October 29 will be welcomed with cider and donuts donated by local orchards and greeted with the first of many true, but unexplained tales at the site. 

Visitors to a previous Haunted Histories at the Forts events hear tales of some of the mysteries at and around the Lake Champlain historic fortress.

Present day meets the past in the most unfortunate of coincidences – this is not the first epidemic witnessed at Crown Point. The winter of 1775-76 found Boston in the throes of a smallpox epidemic.  Many know of the story of the artillery recovered from Crown Point and how General George Washington used the guns to drive out British troops during the Siege of Boston; however less well known, is at the time of liberation, the city was also ravaged by a pandemic of smallpox.

Most British troops had been inoculated or had the smallpox previously and were immune. In Europe, where smallpox was pervasive, most would have been exposed to the disease and likely had antibodies to protect them. 1 This protection was not the case for Indigenous peoples nor the colonists, and the disease persisted in Boston throughout the beginnings of the war, peaking in July 1775 and gradually subsiding by September of that year.  At that time, little was known about virology, and isolation was used as the primary control of transmission.

But then as now, that was only the first wave of the epidemic in the Colonies.  During the summer of 1775, the Continental Army launched the ill-fated Northern Campaign in an attempt to dislodge British forces in Canada.  Crown Point became the launching pad for these Patriot attacks directed at British-controlled Montreal and Quebec on the St. Lawrence River.

The second wave of the epidemic came in the midst of this campaign in 1776.  Patriot Major General John Thomas, Commander of the Army in Quebec, died of the disease in the summer of 1776 as the disease-weakened Continental Army was repelled from Quebec.  By that point, an estimated 3,000 men of the Northern Army were sick, most with smallpox.2 After a five-month siege on Quebec, defeated, diseased colonial troops withdrew to Crown Point where a hospital was set up. 

William Scudder, an officer serving in the New York 4th Regiment during the campaign, wrote in his journal:

“In June, I had the command of some batteaux…that were loaded with provisions to go to Crown Point, where our army then lay, under the command of General Sullivan, having retreated from Canada, – an such a scene of mortality was exhibited at that place, I never had beheld.  The hospital I judged to be about one hundred and fifty feet in length; on the lower floor in two ranges on each side, the poor sick and distressed soldiers.  Their disorder was chiefly the small-pox – Some groaning and begging for water, some dying and other dead and sewed up in their blankets; let it suffice to say, that by the middle of the afternoon they would begin to carry the dead from the hospital; I counted twenty-one carried out at one time, and it was common to bury fifteen or twenty in a day.” 3

Archeologists have been working at Crown Point from the mid-1950’s to the present.  In addition to first-hand accounts of those laying their final rest here, there are the Fort St. Frederic parish birth and death records of the French that inhabited the site prior to both the British and Colonial occupations.  Despite all the historical records, and the extensive archeological work throughout the 21st century, no evidence of human remains have ever been found. The French were Catholic, which prohibited them from burning the bodies, and even if the diseased soldiers had been disposed of by incarceration, there would be carbon remains.  No reasons can be found to explain this mysterious absence.

It’s not only the history that cannot be explained, but the mountains and lakes that surround Crown Point that are just as elusive and mystifying, as evidenced proven by both news reports and stories local inhabitants have passed down through generations.

Long before any European settlers arrived in the area, both the Abenaki and the Haudenosaunee native people had stories about a large creature inhabiting the lake. It was called Ta-to-skok by the Abenaki, a word meaning creature with two tusks. Early in the 18th century, Abenakis warned French explorers about disturbing the waters of the lake, so as not to disturb the serpent.

Samuel de Champlain’s diary reveals the following entry:

“. . . [T]here is also a great abundance of many species of fish. Amongst others there is one called by the natives Chaousarou, which is of various lengths; but the largest of them, as these tribes have told me, are from eight to ten feet long. I have seen some five feet long, which were as big as my thigh, and had a head as large as my two fists, with a snout two feet and a half long, and a double row of very sharp, dangerous teeth. Its body has a good deal the shape of the pike; but it is protected by scales of a silvery gray colour and so strong that a dagger could not pierce them.”

Never one to miss a trick, showman P. T. Barnum offered a reward of $50,000 in 1873 for “hide of the great Champlain serpent to add to my mammoth World’s Fair Show.” 4 No one ever claimed it.

The Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism lists many 19th century sightings, with 1873 being a particularly robust year.  A New York Times story reported that a railroad crew had seen the head of an “enormous serpent” in Lake Champlain, with bright silvery scales that glistened in the sun. In July that same year, Clinton County’s Sheriff, Nathan H. Mooney, reported an “enormous snake or water serpent” he thought was 25 to 35 feet long. Then in August, the steamship W.B. Eddy encountered Champ by running into it. The ship nearly turned over, according to many of the tourists on board. Never one to miss a trick, showman P. T. Barnum offered a reward of $50,000 for “hide of the great Champlain serpent to add to my mammoth World’s Fair Show.” 4

The stories continue through the decades, marked by a roadside sign upon entrance to the neighboring town, Port Henry, where they celebrate Champ Day each summer, hoping to catch sight of him again. 

Fun folklore or relative of Nessie, world famous occupant of the Scottish Loch Ness?  Fast-forward to contemporary times, and a quick Google search on Champ turns up what may be the only existing photo of his presence, taken by Sandra Mansi in 1977 while vacationing in northern Vermont.  5

A 1977 photograph allegedly showing the mysterious Lake Champlain beast, taken by Sandra Mansi. Below, the Champ sign outside Port Henry.


Ronald Kermani, a former investigative reporter for the Times Union, whose family has a camp on Lake Champlain. He has spent summers here for the past five decades and told of his experience, at 7:10 a.m. on July 2, 1983, when he was fishing in a rowboat with a girlfriend.

He said he saw a creature about 30 feet away with “three dark humps — maybe 12 inches thick — protruding about two feet above the surface … two or three feet apart.”

Kermani wrote: “We watched in disbelief for about ten seconds. The humps slowly sank into the water. There was no wake, no telltale sign of movement. Unexplained. Eerie. Unsettling.”

He did not get a picture because he did not have a camera. Ever since, Kermani, who is retired and lives in Guilderland, has carried a camera in the boat with him when he is out on the lake — just in case. 6

It’s not just below the surface that menaces. In the mountains to the west of the peninsula are indigenous burial grounds.   Coot Hill near Port Henry has long been a reported locus of visions, vengeful murders, and accumulation of gruesome accidents.  Maybe they should have looked for property elsewhere to settle.

There’s not enough space to even address the French werewolves, apparitions appearing in the parade grounds, drowned Scottish soldiers or sounds that emerge and then follow a person as they try to retreat.  History books can explain some, but not all.   Coupled with deep darkness and imagination, that makes for a chilling trapse across the grounds at Crown Point, particularly in the dark of night.  For the Haunted History event, 18th century costumed interpreters will portray the restless soul of French settlers, who would have arrived at Fort St. Frederic with stories of their own to tell.

Keep your friends close and your flashlight on!


Post by Lisa Polay, Site Manager, Crown Point State Historic Site.

SOURCES

1 Gil Jr.l, Harold B. Colonial Germ Warfare.  Colonial Williamsburg Journal. Spring 2004.

2 Fenn, Elizabeth A. The Great Smallpox Epidemic.  History Today. Vol 53: Issue 8. August 2003.

3  The Journal of William Scudder, an officer in the late New York Line, who was taken captive by the Indians at Fort Stanwix, on the 23rd of July, 1779, and was holden a prisoner in Canada until October, 1782, and then sent to New York and admitted on parole. Evans Early American Imprint Collection

4  Lake Champlain Region (ROOST), https://www.lakechamplainregion.com/heritage/champ

Grondahl, Paul Champ:  Hook, Line and Sinker,. Albany Times Union. Dec 28, 2012.

6 Grondahl, Paul Champ:  Hook, Line and Sinker, Albany Times Union. Dec 28, 2012

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