The History of Hotel Champlain and Clinton Community College on Bluff Point

Originally prepared by the staff of Clinton Community College in the 1980s and updated by the Professor T.R. Mandeville of Clinton Community College in 2022.

Pre-contact Period

Bluff Point is located four miles south of Plattsburgh, New York, situated on the highest promontory of Lake Champlain at 200 feet above lake level (296 feet above sea level) offering remarkable views of the North Country. To the east, across the 12-mile width of Lake Champlain, are the shores of Vermont and the Green Mountains. Also to the east is historic Valcour Island which is the site of one of the oldest and largest Great Blue Heron rookeries in North America; at least 400 nesting pairs of Great Blue Herons raise their offspring on the southeast corner of the island. To the west the view includes the Saranac River Valley and the Adirondack Mountains including a spectacular view of Whiteface. Prior to the European colonization of North America, the Iroquois Confederation or the Haudenosaunee people originally controlled Bluff Point; more specifically, this was Mohawk or Kanyenke’haka tribal land.

                                         Nearly Four Centuries of American History

Bluff Point's written recorded history dates to July of 1609, when the French explorer Samuel de Champlain became the first European to venture on to Lake Champlain, accompanied by his Algonquian allies, which commemorates his name. In September of 1609, English Sea Captain Henry Hudson, while exploring for the Dutch, becomes the first European to sail up the river which now bears his name. 

Hudson and Champlain's explorations helped establish a gateway between what would become French Canada (New France) and the British Colonies during the early period of the European settlement of North America.  During the French and Indian War (1754-1763), Great Britain and France contended for strongholds along Lake Champlain's shores as a means to control the transportation corridor between the Hudson River and the lower St. Lawrence, an area which would be known as the "Warpath of Nations" for almost a century. 

As the highest point overlooking the Lake Champlain’s northwestern shore, Bluff Point provided a natural position for observers to watch ships passing between New France and the French outposts at the strategic points of Crown Point (Fort St. Frederick) and Ticonderoga (Fort Carillion). Later, military strategists of both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 regarded the view at the Bluff Point area as an important element in their reconnaissance efforts to help keep track of the enemy’s movements on the lake.

During the French and Indian War, British Captain William Loring of General Jeffery Amherst’s fleet forced three French sloops ( the La Musquelonguy, the La Brochette, and the L’Esurgeon) and a French schooner (LaVigilante) to be scuttled on October 12, 1759, in front of the present day neighborhood of Cliff Haven. Two 1748 British light 12-pound cannons aboard that had earlier been captured by the French were later recovered by divers in 1968. One of these cannons is now on display on the 2nd floor of Clinton Community College’s Moore Building (formerly the Hotel Champlain) and the other is displayed at the museum located at Crown Point State Historic Site. 

The first naval engagement on the North American continent between the then newly formed American Navy, under the command of Benedict Arnold and the British Navy took place in front of Bluff Point, which can be viewed and interpreted from the Second Floor East Veranda of Clinton Community College’s Moore Building. The Battle of Valcour occurred on October 11-13, 1776, and was the first naval battle of the American Revolution in which Benedict Arnold's American fleet of 16 ships was defeated by the 32 ship British fleet under the command of Sir Guy Carleton. The British fleet included 20 gunboats that carried over 75 guns up to heavy 24-pound cannons, while the American boats carried a total of 36 guns. The first American Navy lost all but four vessels in the battle; however, this engagement delayed the first northern British invasion of Carlton and his 8,000 men in 1776 and the second British invasion of 11,000 men commanded by Generals John Burgoyne and Simon Fraser occurred the next year in 1777. This allowed the Continental Army commanded by Generals Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold to be better prepared and led to the American victories at Saratoga in September and October of 1777, which is considered by historians to be a turning point of the Revolutionary War. 

On September 11, 1814, the sea Battle of Plattsburgh took place just north of the Bluff Point area between Cumberland Head and Crab Island, in which 30-year-old Commodore Thomas Macdonough of the United States Navy led the American fleet to a significant victory that was the turning point of the War of 1812. Utilizing the experience gained during the First Barbary War at the Battle of Tripoli in 1804 under the command of Captain Edward Preble while serving with Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, Macdonough’s brilliant display of naval tactics defeated a superior British force commanded by Captain Robert Downie. The results of the battle were 104 American sailors killed and 116 wounded, the British suffered 168 killed, including Captain Downie, and 220 wounded.  Macdonough’s tremendous victory over the British Navy saved Plattsburgh from the 13,000 troops of the British Army commanded by General Sir John Prevost who had crossed the border from Canada on August 31, 9,000 of which had invaded Plattsburgh. This victory forced the British Army to retreat back to Canada and convinced the British that nothing was to be gained by continued warfare. Negotiations began in Europe and the Treaty of Ghent was signed on December 24, 1814, which ended the War of 1812.  An anchor from the USS Preble, part of Commodore Macdonough’s fleet, is on display in the lower-level entryway of the Institute for Advanced Manufacturing on the Clinton Community College campus.   

Crab Island, which can be viewed from the Second Floor East Veranda of Clinton Community College’s Moore Building, served as hospitals for both wounded American and British soldiers during the Battle of Plattsburgh. Many of the soldiers who died of their wounds on Crab Island were buried there, and the graves remain to this day. The obelisk monument was erected in 1908 to the memory of American veterans of the War of 1812. 

The Age of Great Railroad Hotels 

 In the early 1870s, one of Plattsburgh’s wealthiest individuals (attorney, entrepreneur, and politician) Smith M. Weed, purchased the Bluff Point property with the original intention of building a home. Enchanted with the beautiful view, Weed constructed roads and an observation tower for the citizens of Plattsburgh to view of Lake Champlain and its surroundings. An adept and farsighted businessman, Weed saw the possibility for a highly successful resort on Bluff Point, and he convinced the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company (D& H Company) to join him in promoting the western shore of Lake Champlain as a resort area, as it might be particularly attractive to downstate residents of means.

The D&H Company joined forces with the New York and Canada Railroad Company to build a railroad line to service the northern New York area. Securing a $70,000 grant from the New York State Legislature, the railroad completed the entire distance between Albany, New York and Montreal, Quebec in 1876. The D&H Company also acquired the oldest steamboat company in America, the Champlain Transportation Company, which gave the D&H Railroad extensive and almost exclusive control of transportation in the North Country. 

The D&H Company promoted the North Country as a summer paradise for tourists and became interested in Weed’s idea of creating a luxury resort hotel on Bluff Point. A committee of citizens was appointed to bring the matter directly to the public and solicit subscriptions for stock. On August 15, 1888, a public meeting was held at the Clinton County Courthouse at which Mr. Weed sold the 363 ¼ acres Bluff Point property to the Delaware Hudson Railroad Company for $25,000 who had plans to build "the hotel of hotels”. The Bluff Point Hotel Company was composed of A.L. Inman, president; C.N. Booth, secretary and treasurer; A. Van Santvoord, Robert Oliphant, Smith M. Weed, and Col. LeGrand B. Cannon, directors. The ground was broken on September 8, 1888, and the hotel construction began. Weed's actions had an important long-term effect on the economy of Clinton County, as his Bluff Point venture encouraged the marketing of the beauty of the North Country as a tourist attraction.

The Hotels of Hotels 

 Hotel Champlain opened on June 17, 1890, at a cost of over $250,000 and was served by rail and steamship. Promoted as “The superb Adirondack and Lake Champlain Resort”, this 500-room facility also included 11 cottages, a 500-foot beach called the “Beach of the Singing Sands” with a 52-boat capacity boathouse, its own electrical power plant, water pumping station, train station, steamship dock, and the Bluff Point Golf Course. New York City Architect George W. Harney designed the original large white and gray structure capped by gleaming red roofs and featured 500 rooms of ornate Victorian wood frame construction with broad verandas extending around three sides of the first and second floors. Holland Enslie of Cornwall-on-the-Hudson was the contractor for the hotel and other buildings. Built directly on solid rock, the building was 400 feet long and 75 feet wide. Three massive towers atop the five-story building provided literally a "bird's eye view" of the lake, nearby islands, and the surrounding mountains of New York and Vermont. Two of the towers rose an additional two stories and the center tower rose an additional five stories to a height of 125 feet above the summit of Bluff Point. 

Featuring the ultimate in "gay-nineties" luxury, the resort left guests with no other demands upon their time but recreation. The hotel claimed perfect conditions at all times tempered by the dry cooling breezes of Lake Champlain without nuisances, mosquitoes or flies. A special railroad station and steamship dock delivered vacationers to Bluff Point area. From these points of arrival, guests were transported in horse drawn carriages to the hotel's entrance. There an assortment of bellhops, servants, waiters, and child care attendants saw to it that guests were not disturbed from their leisure. Ideal social life for young people, banquets, conferences, and balls were the order of the day. The resort also offered bridle paths, tennis courts, a yacht club, fishing excursions, hiking trails, a private beach and bathhouse, a bar and billiard room, a bowling alley, a pastry room, wine and store rooms, and children's playrooms to provide guests of any age with an almost limitless variety of daily activities. North of Bluff Point and adjacent to the park was the Catholic Summer School of America at Cliff Haven. Chartered by the Board of Regents of the State of New York, the school invited prominent experts offering lectures on philosophy, science, literature, art, history, and select musical programs that hotel guests could attend. During the hotel’s operational season from June until October, the hotel railroad station trains were scheduled to arrive and depart five times a day. Each morning the Chateaugay Railroad train would pick up 20 to 70 persons for the thrilling trip to Saranac Lake, which could continue by six-horse stagecoach through the woods to Ausable Forks in search of deer, bear, and other wildlife.

 Hotel furnishings boasted lace curtains, Ispahan rugs, antique oak bedroom sets, gold and white ballroom furniture, elm lounging chairs, Havilland and Staffordshire dining room china, silver utensils of a Meriden Britannia pattern, and all linens made in Scotland. The sixth floor of the main tower was utilized as a “smoking and lounging room”. The resort had a 450-ton icehouse, its own spring water bottled for guests, a separate laundry and elevators. The first-floor offices extended through the body of the hotel and were built in circular form of enclosed glass on the lakeside. The entire hotel was lighted with the “incandescent light, Westinghouse System” with over 1500 bulbs, an electric call system, a fire alarm system, and local and long-distance telephone service. Landscape architect Charles H. Miller of Philadelphia wished to leave the grounds in the natural state as far as possible as he created eight-miles of splendid roads across the bluff. A three-mile macadam road was constructed from Bluff Point to the Plattsburgh Military Reservation.

Adjacent to the west of the hotel is the fifth golf course established in the United States. The 18-Hole Bluff Point Golf Resort opened in 1890, and soon became very popular with golfing enthusiasts vacationing at the hotel, that it was preened to a course of superb quality. A 9-hole pitch and putt course was available for warming up for the grand course. Still in operation, the Bluff Point Golf Resort retains its reputation as a first-rate golfing facility. 

In 1897 U.S. President William McKinley utilized the facilities as the "Summer White House" and his party included his wife, Vice President Hobart and family, the Secretary of War Alger, and various other cabinet members.  The Twenty-first Regiment Infantry Band of the Plattsburgh Barracks saluted President McKinley daily. 

Throughout the Hotel Champlain's 60 year history, its register read like a Who's Who of international business, politics, high society, and sports; signatures of notables included U.S. Presidents Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, William Howard Taft, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as well as Thomas Edison, Britain's Lord Beaverbrook, and George Herman "Babe" Ruth. 

From July 4 through July 10, 1909, the Lake Champlain Tercentenary Celebration occurred with New York State, Vermont, and Canada recognizing the 300-year anniversary of the European discovery of Lake Champlain. The weeklong celebration included a banquet held at the Hotel Champlain on July 7, 1909. The 450 dignitaries and honored guests included President William Howard Taft, Governor of New York Charles Evans Hughes, Governor of Vermont George Prouty, British Ambassador James Bryce, French Ambassador Jean Jules Jusserand, U.S. Secretary of War John Dickinson, and former U.S. Secretary of State and Secretary of War, New York U.S. Senator Elihu Root. The hotel grounds were elaborately trimmed with thousands of Japanese lanterns and countless American flags.

The very next spring, on May 25, 1910, while preparations were being made for another summer season, the original Hotel Champlain’s wood frame building burned to the ground. Fortunately, all of the 60 employees escaped injury, but the old hotel was devastated, leaving hundreds of faithful yearly visitors without their vacation paradise. The cause of the fire was unknown, but poor electrical wiring due to squirrel damage was locally speculated as the cause but The New York Times reported that the cause of the fire was “believed to have resulted from a lighted cigarette or cigar carelessly thrown aside.” The loss was estimated at $300,000 but the hotel was insured for only $231,000. On the following day, The Plattsburg Daily Press reported, “The sight was one of desolation at daybreak. The grand and towering monument to business and railroad enterprise disappeared, and the landscape of the Lake Champlain as seen away north of Cumberland Head, south to and far beyond Burlington was changed in the twinkling of an eye.”  A May 26, 1910 edition of The Sun states that the fire “could be seen in two states and several counties” and that it was not known how the fire started. That summer, “the Cottage Colony at Bluff Point” served the guests who had rented cottages, suites or rooms for the summer as “the Old Bungalow” was converted into a restaurant. Construction on a new structure began on September 10, 1910.

The New Hotel Champlain 

On July 11, 1911, the present building of concrete and stone opened to the public and welcomed eager guests back to their Adirondack retreat. The new Hotel Champlain was constructed of a steel frame to be "fire proof” and considerably smaller than the original facility with only 200 rooms, yet boasted the same ambiance as its predecessor. A new automotive garage accommodating 50 cars was built near the railroad station. The interior of the hotel was luxuriously furnished throughout in the style of Louis XIV, including an open-air grotto, a grill, and a dining hall filled with unexcelled cuisine. Numerous handsomely decorated cottages were scattered across the grounds. Outside, sculptured gardens and flowers decorated the grounds with a disciplined loveliness. Flanked by the Beach of the Singing Sands, a nicely equipped bathhouse provided professional swimming instruction during bathing hours. Other amenities included the Green Drive equestrian turfed bridle path that surrounded the property, stables, steamboat excursions, dancing in the Louis XIV Ballroom every evening (except Sunday) with special orchestral music, and auto-car trips to points of natural and historic interest. The new Hotel Champlain was designated as the official hotel of the Automobile Club of America.

For 40 years, the new Hotel Champlain flourished as one of America's most prestigious and fabled vacation sites. The hotel's legends of romance and adventure abound from the lighthearted turn-of-the century era, through the frantic, high-stepping "Roaring Twenties" and to the intense experience of World War I. Prohibition in the United States made the environs of the Canadian border attractive to New Yorkers who liked their cocktails on leisurely vacation evenings which were readily available at the hotel. The grounds surrounding Hotel Champlain provided the physical environment for parts of the 1924 Cosmopolitan Films silent film entitled Janice Meredith also known as The Beautiful Rebel.  Famed silent screen actors George Nash, Harrison Ford, Halbrook Blinn, and Marion Davies starred in the elaborate costume drama depicting events from the Revolutionary War. Guests at the time were able to watch the costumed cast and film crews at work, thus adding to the hotel's attraction.

  The stock market crash of 1929, generally devastating to the nation's economy, marked the beginning of Hotel Champlain's end. While the hotel continued to offer luxury accommodations for a number of years after the crash, the long-term effects of the Great Depression, World War II, and changing American vacation habits left the hotel's owners in debt. On March 1, 1931, the D&H Railroad sold the Hotel Champlain to Cummings and Vineburg of Montreal who sell it in 1939 to the owners of the Pal Razor Blade Company in Plattsburgh, J.L. Mailman, A.L. Mailman and Otto Kraus of Montreal, who operate the facilities at a loss until 1950. The Mailman Brothers redecorate the hotel with furniture from the ill-starred steam ship Normandie and the beautiful Cabana Club was built on the Singing Sands Beach. Except for a short period of time, however, the hotel continued to operate at a loss. The days of spectacular railroad hotels were all but over. The automobile revolution, air conditioning, and new trends in vacation destinations all contributed to the majestic hotel’s decline.

Bellarmine College Jesuit Seminary

On July 2, 1951, the Mailman Brothers sell the hotel and Bluff Point property to the Society of Jesus who converted the facilities into a Jesuit Seminary named Bellarmine College, which operated until 1967. The grand old hotel became the equally elegant Bellarmine College, an institution devoted to the preparation of Jesuit priests. Where orchestras once played lively contemporary tunes for summer dancers, now liturgical music provided a backdrop for students of religious life and classical languages. Bellarmine College closed in 1966 after 15 years of operation, and the Bluff Point facility was left empty for the first time since its original opening in 1890.

Clinton Community College 

After months of searching, investigating and many discussions, Clinton County officials chose the Bluff Point site for Clinton Community College, which had been approved by Governor Nelson Rockefeller on October 14, 1966 and chartered by the State University of New York (SUNY). Once only serving the affluent and select few, this site now serves the North Country and all of its citizens who wish to avail themselves of a higher education. In 1969, SUNY approves the former hotel as a temporary site for Clinton Community College (CCC), which opens on September 16 with a total enrollment of 216 students (189 were fulltime students). Although Clinton County officials considered opening the school elsewhere, the Bluff Point site was more attractive when it became available because of its natural beauty and historical significance. It was evident to the College's founders that Bluff Point would be one of the most beautiful and interesting campus settings in the country. In May of 1971, Clinton Community College graduated the first class of 38 students. That year SUNY approved the purchase of the hotel and Bluff Point property for $1,045,000, giving CCC a permanent home. In 1990 the Childcare Center opens in the renovated McKinley Cottage; in 2023 the cottage will become the home of the Zone 9 Police Training Academy. In 1991 the College sees the addition of the William Forrence Health, Physical Education, and Recreation Building. In 2001 the Ronald B. Stafford Center for Arts, Science and Technology opened. The hotel building was dedicated as the George Moore Academic and Administrative building in 2007. In 2010 the Grandview Cottage is restored and becomes the CCC Alumni Cottage. In 2017, the College expands and opened the Institute for Advanced Manufacturing. In 2022 the restoration of the George Moore Building, the former Hotel Champlain, is completed. 

History Commemorated

In October of 2022, a William G. Pomeroy Foundation New York State Historic Marker was installed at the south entrance of the Moore Building to commemorate the Hotel Champlain. The marker reads:        HOTEL CHAMPLAIN
                                          RESORT HOTEL OPENED IN 1890 
                                          AND REBUILT AFTER 1910 FIRE. 
                                          HOST TO FIVE U.S. PRESIDENTS.
                                          CLOSED IN 1951. BECAME CLINTON
                                          COMMUNITY COLLEGE IN 1969.