Today is Canada Day, and Wednesday is Independence Day. We just passed the 200th anniversary of the declaration of the War of 1812, a war that culminated in battles fought in Plattsburgh and Baltimore. The War of 1812 defined borders of two nations and Canada’s identity ever since. It also defined the economy of the North Country.
Plattsburgh played roles in two major conflicts that forged the new United States. It played an incremental, but not a transformational, role in the Revolutionary War. Two generations later, the pivotal Battle of Plattsburgh defined the outcome of the War of 1812.
Plattsburgh found itself playing roles in each of these wars for the same reasons that our economy has fared relatively well in this global recession. We sit at a crossroad between two major nations, and between the two largest mutual trading partners in the world. We are on the shore of a historically important waterway between the U.S. and Canada. A major interstate highway bisects our town and city. And, our international airport now serves Montreal just as it serves Plattsburgh. Ours is a strategic transportation location.
It is understandable that past military leaders would have seen Plattsburgh for its strategic location, too. Such was the case on September 11, 1814.
By then, the U.S. was losing the War of 1812. It had started just as many wars do. Surrounded by war hawks, President James Madison failed to understand the lack of resolve in two nations that were about to be thrust into battle. With almost no standing army, Madison coveted Upper and Lower Canada, and thought local militia could quite easily win the hearts of Canadian colonists just waiting to join America.
Some regions of this country were downright skeptical. New England states debated secession. Vermont remained neutral in the war, which allowed them the lucrative opportunity to sell supplies to the British. A demoralized rag-tag group of militia men came up against the professional army of the British, and the native population hoped to gain an independent state of their own.
The burning of Upper Canada’s capital of York by an undisciplined American militia induced the British to further offend military tradition by burning our capital building in Washington. The repair and repainting created what we now call the White House.
After two years fighting a difficult war, treaty talks began in Ghent, Belgium. The British calculated that a couple of final thrusts, primarily in Plattsburgh and a diversionary raid on Baltimore would allow them the upper hand in negotiations at Ghent to take part of the northern and midwest states and create an Indian nation. They timed these two major final battles, in Plattsburgh on Sept. 11 of 1814, and in Baltimore two days later.
The key battle began when British army regulars softened the perimeter of Plattsburgh earlier that week. Their progress was frustrated by American forces’ clever strategies. Then, on the morning of Sunday, Sept. 11, mighty British Navy ships sailed into Cumberland Bay within eyesight of the town.
The Americans were more than ready for them. A ship sailing or at anchor fires its cannon from just one side. The Americans developed an ingenious double anchor system that allowed them to cut the anchor line on one end of their ships so they could pivot on the other. In effect, they created twice the firepower and used this technique to deflect the forward thrust of the British. The British beat back to Quebec in disarray. Their general was humiliated and was later removed from command.
The defense of Baltimore was equally unlikely. Fort McHenry was isolated by the British Navy, but miraculously held them off to save Baltimore. Observing the rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air, an aspiring lawyer documented the battle that evening and the following morning, and united a demoralized nation with his Star Spangled Banner.
With news that the Americans could stop the British in their tracks, the war ended in a stalemate. The Americans neither gained nor lost significant territory, even if both sides lost significant lives and property.
History reminds us that the Battle of Baltimore coalesced two nations. It helped unify America, and it created a Canadian culture that defines itself relative to its American cousins to this day. Baltimore, and a later battle in New Orleans following the Christmas Eve, 1814, signing of the Treaty of Ghent, are celebrated today in song, memorials, commemorative stamps and federal parks and heritage sites.
The celebration of these historic sites are significant not solely for their once strategic importance in forging our nation. These historic sites now act as economic engines for their regions. While tourists and visitors peak each year when the anniversary of the major battles arrive, the commemorations, Fort McHenry and the Chalmette Plantation offer year-long places to rally and immerse visitors in an important history.
These sites in New Orleans and Baltimore are destinations. They create direct jobs through their designation as federal parks or historic sites. Reenactors, guides and park employees offer visitors a memorable experience. Indirect jobs are created by concessionaires, local restaurants and hotels, souvenir shops, the transportation network and local convention centers that have one more amenity to advertise. And, this income brought into their community creates new income and new local spending that induces even further jobs.
Maryland understands the economic significance of their historic heritage. Their governor recently kicked off a $16.5 million campaign to celebrate their part of the War of 1812. This investment is on top of a new $15 million interpretive center, paid through investments in their historical legacy by the federal and state governments and the federal Parks Service. More than $12 million will be directed toward local non-profit organizations that can help tell their story over a 32-month-long celebration culminating in their Battle of Baltimore Harbor.
The investment is significant. However, just one part of their vision, a week-long event, is expected to attract more than a million visitors and $100 million in direct spending in their community. This direct spending will result in many multiples of indirect and induced spending as the new dollars circulate through their community for months and years from one event alone. Income from that one event will pay for their event and interpretive-center investment many times over. This gift to their own economic sustainability will also keep on giving as Baltimore is even more firmly cemented in the public’s mind as the defining battle that saved a nation.
While there is little doubt that, were the Battle of Plattsburgh instead in Albany, New York, too, would see the significance of this opportunity and the return to the community’s investment. Economic planners recognize such historic amenities as an important economic asset. The stimulation of the service sector is particularly effective in stimulating local wealth. New dollars are brought into the community that would have otherwise gone elsewhere. The services that cater to these new visitors are local labor intensive, and require goods and supplies that can also be produced locally. The visitor industry brings in large amounts of new money that then continues to circulate in our community. For these reasons, the multiplier effect, or the bang from visitors’ bucks, is very large.
Visionaries in Baltimore and New Orleans seized on their historical asset even before the first centennial of their important battles. Their host cities have enjoyed hundreds of millions to billions of dollars of economic activity ever since. A coherent vision, a modicum of marketing, and some careful investment in historical displays, museums, reenactments and visitor industry infrastructure translated into an industry neither city could ill afford to ignore.
War is always tragic, but our memories of battles won or lost are invaluable lessons. There are few battles that define nations and redefine history. The significance of a time and a place pivotal to a nation is precisely the rich and significant experience visitors want to absorb. The experience may peak once a year on an anniversary. The place and the history, the sense of battles fought around us, and the knowledge of lives lost in defense of a nation are a powerful experience that lasts year round.
Plattsburgh should assume its rightful place as the location of the battle that protected wide swaths of the Northern United States. Without the American win in that decisive battle, Plattsburgh would now be part of Canada, as would an independent Indian nation and the cities of Buffalo, Detroit and Chicago. America is America because of Plattsburgh. Our Cumberland Bay is no less significant than the Plains of Abraham in Quebec, Concorde and Lexington, Fort McHenry, Fort Sumter and Gettysburg. The world knows where these battles were fought. Few know of the Battle of Plattsburgh, a battle that defined America as we know it. It was one of the last two major wartime battles fought on American soil. But while the Battle of Baltimore inspired a nation, the Battle of Plattsburgh remains more obscure.
In two years, Plattsburgh has an opportunity to correct this oversight. Year in and year out, a Battle of Plattsburgh committee works to put on a series of September events that becomes grander every year. This committee has now been working tirelessly for years on the bicentennial vision. Another group has been developing a Destination Master Plan that celebrates what this region has to offer. A prominent part of the plan is the celebration of Plattsburgh’s illustrious and spectacular history.
The history component of the master plan leverages Plattsburgh’s plethora of museums and its battle locations to create a broad visitor experience. They envision rebuilding of ships from the War of 1812 that can act as a floating vehicle for tours and cruises. They envision reenactments that can occur throughout the year, with boot camps that could pepper the city, and with a downtown corridor that can celebrate the historic theme. They imagine an interpretive center on the lake shore that can offer a venue for story tellers and guides. They realize that visitors will find fascinating archaeological digs throughout our region.
To vaunt the Plattsburgh region into the high echelons of historic sites will require a concerted effort. We have the raw asset, our location as one of the country’s most important battles. The region will also need to create the infrastructure associated with the historic asset. This investment must be sufficiently grand to amaze and astonish, and to ensure visitors are glad they came.
Such an investment will not be cheap. To do it right, a region cannot likely do it alone. Plattsburgh will also need the support from the county, state and country that the assumption of a rightful position in history warrants. But, we don’t need any charity. To establish Plattsburgh as an essential part of our heritage is to invest in this region’s future and our nation’s heritage. It could transform Plattsburgh just as heritage towns in Virginia are celebrated today. Then, we could entice people to come to our fair city not because it is near Lake Placid or Montreal, but because it is Plattsburgh, the location of a battle that saved a nation.
Colin Read is the chair of the Department of Economics and Finance at SUNY Plattsburgh. Continue the discussion at www.pressrepublican.com/0216_read.