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Million Dollar Beach: A Treasured Summer Oasis

Jun 08, 2024 10:10AM ● By Story and Photography By Lisa Ballard

When the weather gets hot and sticky, there’s nothing like spending a day at the beach, but Hanover is a challenging place for beachgoers. Many folks make the two-hour drive east to Portsmouth to fulfill the urge to nap on the sand or play in the surf. For only 15 minutes farther by car in the opposite direction, you can hit a different public beach, the Million Dollar Beach on Lake George, and you won’t crave a shower afterwards to rinse off the salt. It’s one of the cleanest bodies of water in the Northeast. And then there’s the strand.

I discovered Million Dollar Beach a few summers ago while looking for a place to take a dip after hiking near Lake George with Zoe, my teenage stepdaughter. The state-owned, 51-acre, 1,700-foot-long public beach was built in 1951 at a cost of—you guessed it—$1 million.

While $1 million was the cost to initially create Million Dollar Beach, the total investment in the facility is now in the multimillions. In 1989, its expansive bathhouse opened, a $3.7 million addition. Then another $6.3 million went into improvements in 2014 to ’15. It’s a treasured summer oasis, yet the site’s value predates its recreational attraction by several
centuries, as Zoe and I quickly discovered.

Beach Backstory

Upon entering the sizeable foyer of the bathhouse, a series of black-and-white photographs and several descriptive placards caught our attention. Most of the photos were about the

earliest days of the beach, including former New York Governor Thomas Dewey at the
groundbreaking ceremony, the beach under construction, and 1950s beachgoers. However,
one display showed the outline of the Land Tortoise.

The Land Tortoise was the sole survivor of a class of watercraft called a “radeau” and America’s oldest intact warship. Radeau means “raft” in French. These floating artillery platforms, used on Lake George and Lake Champlain in the mid-1700s, were 50 feet long, 16 to 18 feet wide, and propelled by 26 oarsmen. Land Tortoise was constructed at the site of Million Dollar Beach in 1758 in preparation for the British attack on the French at Fort Carillon (now Fort Ticonderoga) the following year, but there was one problem: how to store it over the winter when Lake George was covered with ice.

The solution was to scuttle the radeau. It secretly rested on the bottom of the frozen lake with the intention of pulling it up in the spring for the battle. Unfortunately, the spot was deeper than anticipated, and the soldiers could not recover it. The Land Tortoise lay at the
bottom of Lake George undetected until 1990 when it showed up in a sonar survey about two miles from the beach. It’s now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a National Historic Landmark, not to mention one of the lake’s popular scuba sites.

Legendary Lake

Though diving is not allowed directly from Million Dollar Beach, Lake George is a sweet place to scuba dive, often with over 40 feet of underwater visibility. Nicknamed the Queen of American Lakes for its water clarity and surrounding regal vistas, this 32-mile-long and 3-mile-wide body of water averages 75 feet deep. It drains to the north into Lake Champlain via the short 3.5-mile-long La Chute River.

“Lake George is without comparison, the most beautiful water I ever saw . . . its water limpid as crystal, and the mountain sides covered with rich groves . . . down to the water-edge: here and there precipices of rock checker the scene and save it from monotony,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1791 in a letter to his daughter. During the 1800s and early 1900s, famous artists, including Georgia O’Keeffe and Frank Vince DuMond, painted the lake. Roosevelts, Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Peabodys, and Whitneys frequented the area, and some built private lakeside estates.

Mysterious Monster

Lake George has a monster, too, named Georgie. Georgie was purportedly first seen in 1904 by painter Harry Watrous, but it was a hoax by Watrous in an attempt to win a fishing bet with a local newspaper editor. Watrous believed he had lost the bet, then discovered the
editor’s winning 40-pounder was a fake. In response, he crafted a 10-foot-long water snake with red fangs, huge eyes, and long whiskers using a cedar log and some rope. Tugging an underwater line, the monster moved as if it were alive.
He kept the hoax going for 30 years.

After smiling about Georgie, Zoe and I changed in the bathhouse then wandered through the large, lakeside portal. Early afternoon, midweek, it was easy to find a spot to spread our towels. I laid down with my hat over my face, letting the warm sand massage my back. Soft, rhythmical waves lapped the lakeshore a few yards from my feet. Children laughed and splashed further away. “How heavenly to relax at the beach,” I thought as I drifted into semiconsciousness.

Boats by the Beach

The distinct rumble of an antique boat engine nudged me from my sun-induced slumber. A sleek Chris-Craft, its polished mahogany body and chrome trim gleaming, revved up to speed then gracefully arced away from us, leaving behind several lines of wake-induced whitecaps. The Chris-Craft was the iconic powerboat on Lake George when Million Dollar Beach was built.

As I admired the Chris-Craft’s classic lines and beautiful wood construction, the sonorous toot of an even older boat, the old-time paddle-wheeler Minne Ha Ha, announced its departure from the nearby Lake George Steamship Company pier. Minnehaha was the fictional wife of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Chief Hiawatha. The name means “laughing waters” in the Dakota language. Watching the paddle-wheeler down the lake, I imagined a tour guide on the boat telling the passengers the story of Million Dollar Beach, which in a small way I was now part of, just for being there on that glorious summer day.

Beach Birds

Moments later, a nervy gull landed and stared at me from only 10 feet away, looking for a handout. It had obviously gotten one before. No surprise. On crowded days, Million Dollar Beach can handle 1,200 picnicking sunbathers. “Ha ha,” I said to the gull, mocking the paddle-wheeler’s name, hoping to chase it off, but it merely hopped closer.

Not wanting to encourage it, Zoe and I decided to take a walk down the beach. We spotted a couple of mallards napping in the shade of an unused lifeguard chair. The ducks were even tamer than the gull. As I drew close to it to take a photo, one of them raised an eyelid. The other didn’t stir.

“The birds aren’t very skittish here,” observed Zoe. As if proving Zoe’s point, a mother merganser and her dozen ducklings slipped over the rope into the swimming area. They made their way steadily through the people in the water, ignoring all of them.

“I’m going for a swim,” exclaimed Zoe, running into the water and then diving out of sight. She reappeared a few seconds later, beaming and waving for me to join her. Normally, I don’t care to swim in lakes by wading in. The sand typically turns to muck from which underwater weeds grow upward tickling my legs, but Million Dollar Beach was not typical. The sand stretched far into the water. I waded deeper and deeper until I reached the rope marking the deepest part of the swimming area. The water was above my waist, and my feet were still happily on a sandy bottom.

I dunked underwater to cool off, then looked back at the beach. A young couple coaxed their toddler into the water for his first swim. A girl giggled as her father swung her like a pendulum. Two other kids constructed an elaborate fort out of sand. It was sure nice to be at the beach!

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