Travel 2022: Historic scenes, great hiking in Essex on the Champlain coast

The Old Brick Schoolhouse in Essex was built in 1830 on the probable site of the first school in the village, erected in 1787. It has been sensitively restored for use as a home.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
The Old Brick Schoolhouse in Essex was built in 1830 on the probable site of the first school in the village, erected in 1787. It has been sensitively restored for use as a home.

SUMMER TRAVEL 2022 A day trip to Essex, a town of about 600 people on the western edge of Lake Champlain, is full of surprises.

Located a little more than 110 miles from Schenectady, the trip up the Northway sets the stage as you enter the Adirondack Park just north of Queensbury. A drive through the cool, tall pine forests to view mountain vistas and rocky escarpments welcomes a driver, especially on a warm summer day, until you head east at Exit 31.

Up a quiet country road through open fields brings you the first delight: the roaring waterfall of the Boquet River at Wadhams. A stone’s throw away is the Dogwood Bread Company. Established 15 years ago, the business provides a small selection of health food products, Guatamalan coffee and their own breads, tarts, quiches, sandwiches and pizza to order every Friday night to eat in or outside.

Back on the road over gently hilly terrain perfect for biking, you’ll pass by The Hub on the Hill, a farm-to-market store. In a tight curve just one mile from Essex, there’s the famous octagonal schoolhouse on the right, built in 1827 and restored in 2015. Then, it’s into town and Lake Champlain, with views of the Green Mountains of Vermont.

Essex was founded by William Gilliland, an Irish colonial, in 1765. Originally the Mohawk people had inhabited the land, which later King Louis XV of France gave as a land grant to Louis Joseph Robart.

That was subsequently lost when the British took over the region in 1763. The Revolutionary War devastated the area, but after the war an agricultural community took hold.

Within a few decades, a ferry across the lake to Charlotte, Vermont, began, and in the 1800s, stone quarries, tanneries and shipyards sprang up. Two of those shipyards produced the two sloops — “The Growler” and “The Eagle” — that Commodore Thomas MacDonough used for his Champlain fleet during the War of 1812 and at the Battle of Valcour (near Plattsburgh).

By 1850, Essex was one of the busiest towns on the lake with a population of more than 2,000 people. Many of the wonderful period homes in the town came from those eras.

But by the later 1800s, the town’s economy suffered and population began to decline.

In 1969, the Essex Community Heritage organization formed with a mission to preserve the 150 buildings that remained. Not only were they successful but the town became listed in 1975 as a National Register of Historic Places.
A walk up the main street yields many finds:

  • Town Hall itself is a Federal-style structure built in 1790, and the town’s earliest tavern.
  •  Next door to it is an 1840 Greek Revival home with unusual corbeled brick cornices and a manicured front garden.
  • Just a few steps farther is the Essex Inn that combines Greek Revival with a Federal style of 1810. Still in operation, it has a wonderfully rustic dining room.

A brochure at Town Hall provides a map of all the other architectural 19th-century homes, all of which have a view of the lake and Vermont.

For more on local history, check out the Willsboro Heritage Museum in Willsboro, about seven miles to the north.

WHAT ELSE TO DO?
“We get mostly hikers and bikers, or people who just come over on the ferry from Vermont to walk around,” said Alicia Kelly, town clerk the past five years. “It’s a pretty area. We have hundreds of CAT trails (Champlain Area Trails), and there’s a bike shop behind the town hall and a bike rack.”

A more adventurous hike is the nearby Poke-O-Moonshine’s 2.4-mile trek that is listed as difficult, but the views of the Adirondacks are panoramic.

Besides the Essex Inn, are there other places to stay for a few days?

“We do have B&Bs,” said Deputy Town Clerk Donna Haynes. “But housing is hard. It was the pandemic. Any homes that were for sale sold in two days. … like hotcakes.”

On the way home, instead of returning to the Northway right away, stay on that same road and drive about seven miles west to Elizabethtown. This is a metropolis by comparison, but there is the Adirondack History Museum, which opens May 28. Open from Wednesday through Sunday, it has a wealth of information.

And if you’d like a reason to return to Essex, check out the Bike the Barns event set for Oct. 8. It’s a 25- to 30-mile casual cycling ride that visits area farms. The route starts and ends at The Hub on the Hill.

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Categories: Life and Arts, Summer Travel 2022

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