(Photo credit: Fort Stanwix NM, courtesy National Park Service, Wikimedia Commons)
It takes a lot of time and effort to reconstruct an entire 18th century star fort more or less from scratch. It’s not something you see being done that often. Yet that’s just what happened with Fort Stanwix National Monument back in the 1970s.
Fort Stanwix stands in the middle of Rome, NY, a rather unpretty small city near Syracuse. The first time I visited it was on a cold early November day, with bone-chilling winds and snow flurries. The weather seemed fitting. Rome has seen better days. Its fortunes rose and fell with those of the Erie Canal, just to the south. The city struggled economically in the later 20th century. The 1993 closure of nearby Griffiss Air Force Base didn’t help, as that base was the county’s largest employer at the time. Today, the largest local employer is the Oneida Indian Nation, owner of the nearby Turning Stone Casino.
Mid-20th century urban renewal projects were less than kind to the city center, where the worst sort of Modernist architecture now predominates. But 1960s and ’70s urban renewal did bring one lasting benefit: the reconstruction downtown of the star fort that had originally stood there in the 18th century.
Fort Stanwix was a highly strategic spot for Europeans in the mid-1700s. It stood astride the Oneida Carrying Place, a portage between the Mohawk River to the East and Wood Creek to the West. The Mohawk connects up to the Hudson River while Wood Creek flows into Lake Ontario. Long before the Erie Canal or the St. Lawrence Seaway, this was the main water route into the interior. In fact, the portage was the only land portion of a water route that could take you all the way from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. It took on particular importance during the French and Indian War, when the fort was built by the British to protect that portage from French incursions. But with British victory in that war Stanwix was allowed to fall into disrepair and abandoned in 1774, only to be occupied and repaired by Continental Army forces once the Revolutionary War got underway. At that point the fort was renamed Fort Schuyler, in honor of New York’s most prominent Patriot general, Philip Schuyler, though today’s national monument gives the fort its original name.
The site’s historical importance was long recognized. It had been declared a national monument as far back as 1935. The trouble was, there was very little there of historic value for people to see. But the site itself was noteworthy. Local politicians, seeking new avenues for urban regeneration and tourism, began promoting a scheme to rebuild the fort at its original site. In the mid-1960s, they gained the support of no less a public figure than Robert Kennedy, at that time a senator for New York. The park service was apparently not too keen at first on the reconstruction scheme. It might have smacked too much of Disney World to a service dedicated first and foremost to the preservation of original sites and structures. But Kennedy helped push the project forward, and the park service produced a master plan for the site in the late ’60s, before pressing on with the reconstruction in the 1970s (Zenzen, 2004). (I should note that the park service has reconstructed other destroyed sites of historical interest, such as the house that Jefferson stayed at while in Philadelphia working on the Declaration of Independence. So it’s not unheard of.)
The fort that was completed in 1976 does look quite impressive, both outside and in. It might also last longer than the original, which was destroyed by fire in 1781. The NPS’s commissioned administrative report notes “the reconstructed fort currently consists of an earth and timber-clad, reinforced concrete structure that surrounds three freestanding buildings” (Zenzen, 2004, p. vi), so it should be solid enough. The only original piece of the structure that’s left is a brick fireplace. Most of the rest of the fort was destroyed by fire in 1781.
The National Park Service web site describes Stanwix as “the fort that never surrendered.” Under Continental Army control, it withstood a lengthy siege in August 1777. British forces under Brig. Gen. Barry St. Leger were pressing east from Lake Ontario, hoping to crush Patriot opposition in Western New York and eventually connect up with Burgoyne’s British force heading down the state’s Lake Champlain-Hudson corridor farther east. It didn’t work out that way. A relief force of Americans under Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold (yes, that Benedict Arnold—he hadn’t turned traitor yet) successfully disrupted the British siege. The effective breaking of the siege, combined with an inconclusive clash of forces at nearby Oriskany, led to the British decision to retreat. Oriskany, by the way, is often described as one of the bloodiest hand-to-hand battles of the Revolutionary War. The no-holds-barred nature of the clash, combined with the multinational nature of British forces—which included Loyalists, Canadians, Germans, and Mohawk, Seneca and Huron of the Iroquois Confederacy—often seems to grab the imagination of those who learn about the battle. Up to half of the American force was killed or wounded, an extraordinarily high proportion for the time. Even so, at the end of the day it was British who, deserted by their Native American allies, called it quits.
The national monument today covers 16 acres and includes a nice new interpretive center. The fort itself is still regularly staffed by rangers and living history volunteers. It’s actually an excellent, thriving historical site. Stanwix is well worth a visit, especially to get an insight into the complex role of the Iroquois Confederacy in the Revolutionary War. Still, it’s probably best done when the weather’s warmer.
City of Rome. Welcome. Available at http://www.romenewyork.com/document/2335.pdf
Fort Stanwix National Monument. National Park Service. Available at http://www.nps.gov/fost/historyculture/index.htm
Joan M. Zenzen (2004). Reconstructing the Past, Partnering for the Future: An Administrative History of Fort Stanwix National Monument. Executive Summary. Available at http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/fost/admin.pdf