x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Along the Knox Trail to US independence

As the US celebrates its independence from Britain this week, we follow route taken by the soldier Henry Knox to transport artillery to Boston that helped George Washington win a decisive victory.

One of the plaques marking the Knox Trail stands along Northern Boulevard in Albany, the capital of New York state. It is one of 56 markers placed along the trail. Tim Roske / AP Photo
One of the plaques marking the Knox Trail stands along Northern Boulevard in Albany, the capital of New York state. It is one of 56 markers placed along the trail. Tim Roske / AP Photo

In upstate New York, on the sometimes elusive trail of an 18th-century colonel named Henry Knox, we come across a man who seems to personify Americans' enthusiasm for their national history. Ray Miller, a park ranger at the visitors centre of the Saratoga battlefield, tells the story of the British defeat here in 1777, the event that turned the tide in the American revolution. An advance here, a retreat there: the words come out like a volley of musket fire. "Hold on! This is the best part," he says, leading us and a pair of European visitors - shell-shocked, probably, from his narrative gusto - over to a brass cannon.

Miller points to where an inscription has been rubbed out, evidently the name of the American officer who captured the cannon from the British. "Know who that is? Benedict Arnold," he says, dropping a name synonymous with treachery in America. "Once Arnold turns turncoat in 1780, anything with his name on, it's gone."

We're at a crucial stop on the Knox Trail, a quintessentially American historical road trip that navigates cities, suburbs and countryside on a slow, picturesque route through the country's north-east. Though the name Henry Knox is hardly as famous in America as, say, Benedict Arnold, and the dramatic tale of the colonel and his cannons probably not as well-known as the Battle of Saratoga that took place two years later, all are threads in a larger narrative that remains deeply ingrained in the national consciousness - deeper by far, Ray Miller's enthusiasm suggests, than any brass inscription.

The Knox story begins with a tense stand-off in December 1775 during the siege of Boston, the war's first major campaign. The rebels and redcoats were at an impasse, British troops ensconced on the peninsula of Boston city, with the American patriots holding the surrounding towns but lacking the firepower to force the enemy out. Knox, only 25 at the time, approached General George Washington with a plan. The previous May, a band of American fighters - led by Benedict Arnold, oddly enough - had captured Fort Ticonderoga, deep in the Appalachians of New York state, a site now far from enemy lines. Knox proposed to drag the artillery of Ticonderoga to Boston on ox-drawn sleds, a 500-kilometre trek in the icy depths of New England winter, over mountains and rivers, through dense old-growth forests.

It turned into a gruelling 56-day journey, but in late January, the colonel and his men arrived in Boston with 43 heavy brass and iron cannons, six cohorns, eight mortars and two howitzers. Under cover of darkness, the patriots used the arms to fortify Dorchester Heights, overlooking the city from the south. Their fleet now threatened by cannon fire, the British left peaceably by sea on March 17, 1776, a day still officially marked in Boston as Evacuation Day. The revolution might have fizzled were it not for this initial victory.

Today, the Knox Trail is an easy 10-hour drive dotted by granite markers installed in 1926. Though a few have gone missing, it's still possible to follow the markers all the way to Boston, a journey best taken in the autumn, when apples and pumpkins fill the roadside markets and the north-east foliage turns bright. Starting in New York's vacation-land on the eastern edge of the Adirondacks, the trail snakes south down the Hudson River, turning to an eastward rural course over the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts and onward to Boston.

We start at "Fort Ti," overlooking the water passage between Lake Champlain to the north and Lake George to the south. From the earliest days of the white man's settlement of the New World, blood had been spilt for this strategic location, for he who controlled the fort controlled the narrows, and therefore, a vital north-west trade route between New York and Canada. The first granite marker stands at centre stage on the fort's Place d'Armes, its embossed plaque announcing the departure of Knox's artillery train.

Knox and his men rowed the arms down Lake George, the shores of which are now lined with bingo parlours, water slides, posh vacation homes and roadside stands offering American leisure-time staples: rock candy, chilli dogs and soft-serve ice cream. The young colonel wrote in his diary of his stop at Sabbath Day Point: "Went ashore and warm'd ourselves by an exceeding good fire in an hut made by some civil indians who were with their Ladies abed - they gave us some Vension, roasted after their manner which was very relishing."

Alas, we find here neither venison, nor Indians, nor their ladies abed, for the marker at Sabbath Day Point sits on private property, a four-bedroom estate. Nobody answers the door, so I creep around to the back, wary of guard dogs, and find the marker facing the estate's own private boat landing. I snap a photo and make a run for it.

Passing the Saratoga battlefield, the trail creeps up on Albany, the New York state capital, each marker in more urban surroundings than the last, until downtown, one pops out of the pavement by a shopping centre car park, looking like a misplaced gravestone. The next marker, near the point where Knox crossed the frozen Hudson, is lost in the concrete jungle beneath the New York State Thruway. Our friend made it this far only after having "almost perish'd with the cold".

Beyond Albany, the trail turns eastward, keeping a healthy distance from the interstate, winding instead down a network of country roads, past barns and horses, fields and foliage. The quaint artefacts of colonial America make their appearance: a collection of old headstones in a meadow, and a faded flag with a circle of 13 stars, rather than today's 50, hanging on the side of a shed. Nearing the Massachusetts state border, the trail passes through the historic town of Kinderhook, the hometown of the eighth US president Martin Van Buren, nicknamed "Old Kinderhook", who is among those credited for giving widespread currency to the term "OK".

Across the Massachusetts state line, the trail approaches the gentle sweep of the Berkshire Mountains, where monied New Yorkers come for their annual fix of camping and culture. Crowds of up to 20,000 gather here for concerts on the lawn of Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. So numerous are out-of-state visitors to the region, many of them with second homes here, that one shop in Great Barrington sits atop a civilisational fault line: unheard of elsewhere, paraphernalia for the rival Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees sit side by side on the store shelves.

Like contestants in a scavenger hunt, we continue tracking the granite markers, plunging deeper into the Berkshires, where Knox nostalgia is strongest. In the town of Otis, we uncover debate among local historians over the route he took. A road ran through these parts at least a century before Knox, but most of it was "a hideous, howling wilderness", in the words of Rev Benjamin Wadsworth, later president of Harvard College, who travelled from Boston to Albany in 1694 to attend a treaty conference between colonists and Indians.

It's often thought that Massachusetts' Route 23 follows the Knox Trail, but Tom Ragusa, the chairman of the Otis Historical Commission, says the colonel followed an earlier track, long since disappeared. He's been using a 1764 survey to find the old path through the forest, discovering that Knox probably took a route that goes past his own house. "I look out my window," he says, "and I can picture the cannons going by."

Near the general store in the centre of Otis, we find an old cannonball behind a display case in a cluttered attic at the historical commission's headquarters. Found in the woods, it purportedly fell from Knox's artillery train. Later, my father and I go looking for a few trail remnants that Ragusa told us about, including the remains of a tumbled-down roadside tavern. Nothing turns up, all traces of the path having been swallowed by the trees.

Back on the recognised route, the trail leaves rural areas and passes through Worcester, Massachusetts' second city, and enters Greater Boston's suburban sprawl, ending at Cambridge Common, site of the Continental Army's camp in 1776. Harvard undergraduates play softball here beside the final granite slab, marking the spot where Knox delivered the artillery to Washington. He was later promoted to general and, after independence, served as secretary of war.

With its red-brick Freedom Trail offering a walking tour of colonial-era sites in the downtown area, Boston is arguably the nation's capital of heritage tourism. It's even possible to follow the Knox Trail further, all the way to Dorchester Heights, where a monument at the summit offers as commanding a view of the city as that enjoyed by American soldiers on March 17, 1776, when many probably stood dumbstruck at the retreat of what was then the world's greatest army.

My grandfather, who has lived in the Greater Boston area for 93 years, sometimes refers to anywhere inland of Greater Boston as "somewhere west of Worcester", a vast, amorphous area that includes not just the Knox Trail region but also Cleveland, Chicago, Omaha and San Francisco - that is, the rest of the country. The quip is a reminder of the days when the nearby Appalachian Mountains marked the American frontier, that "hideous, howling wilderness" beyond which only Indians and buffalo roamed.

Tracing the path of Col Knox, one can't shake the feeling that there's something still out there, out in what remains of the howling wilderness that covered the land before it was paved over by highways, strip malls and Best Buys: something buried in the soil or lost in the overgrowth, always just out of reach. Perhaps, like Benedict Arnold's name, it's been rubbed out for good. I think back to the time I spent rooting around in the forest with my father, looking for traces of the tavern and the road. There's nothing there, just trees and rocks and dirt - but something in us can't help searching, on the lookout, perhaps, for anything like a stray cannonball.


If you go

The flight  Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) flies to New York from Dh6,565 return and to Boston from Dh5,915. The Lake George region is less than five hours' drive from both cities

The history David McCullough's book 1776 gives a readable account of the events surrounding the start of America's War of Independence, including the Knox expedition

The route The New York State Museum outlines the route, including the location of the remaining markers, at www.nysm.nysed.gov/services/KnoxTrail