Beyond These Stone Walls
Fort Ticonderoga Opens for the Season
Fort Ticonderoga has more than one story to tell, the site’s president, Beth Hill, likes to emphasize.
It even has a richer, more extensive military history than can be explained by the stone fortress that has been reconstructed over the past one hundred years.
“The more I learn about the site and its history, the more conscious I am that the fort was only one part of a military complex that included extensive earth works,” said Hill.
Establishing the links between the fort and its grounds, and the multiple uses they’ve served over the centuries, and in ways that are compelling to the contemporary visitor, drives Fort Ticonderoga’s mission, said Hill.
One goal of the Fort’s new comprehensive plan, which its Board of Trustees approved in March, was to refine that mission.
“We wanted to look at the site as a whole, from the Fort to the Pavilion and the gardens, to our museum-quality collections. We have so many assets. We tested concepts, took surveys, all with a view to understanding what works, what will resonate with visitors and what it will take to sustain Fort Ticonderoga well into the future,” said Hill.
The Comprehensive Plan is not a public document, and Hill declined to answer questions about such topics as the trustees’ plans for the Pavilion once it has been restored, or to address rumors that it might become a wedding hall, a corporate retreat or an inn or a restaurant.
Nevertheless, the future of Fort Ticonderoga is becoming discernible, if not always visible, as the site opens for its annual summer season.
Its plan to link the Fort with Lake Champlain has received the most attention.
Earlier this year, Fort Ticonderoga announced that it had purchased the Carillon, a 60 ft tour boat built by Scarano Brothers in 1989.
Ninety minute narrated cruises, departing three times a day from the state boat launch at the Ticonderoga ferry landing, will be offered throughout the summer. The boat is also available for charters.
Access to Lake Champlain and its role in the histories of the French and Indian War and the American Revolution will enhance Fort Ticonderoga’s standing “as a cultural destination experience,” said Hill.
A network of docks, whose location has yet to be determined, will be part of the Fort’s new “waterway transportation and recreation system,” and will include space for the tour boat as well as visitors’ boats, said Hill.
Four new exhibits will open in the Fort’s newly renovated South Barracks: 1756: The Front Line of New France; Iron & Stone: Building Fort Carillon; Object Lessons: Perspectives on Material Culture and Diorama-Rama: History in Miniature.
The exhibitions demonstrate that the Fort’s collection of art and artifacts, from prehistory to the 20th century, are among its greatest assets, assets that have yet to receive the attention they deserve.
Making certain that they do is another long range plan, said Hill.
“Our plan is to build a museum that will allow us to exhibit our world class collections,” said Hill. “That’s something that was always envisioned. It would also offer us an opportunity to orient our visitors before they enter the site.”
Now that information is instantaneously available through a variety of media, people no longer have to visit historic sites like Fort Ticonderoga to learn about the past. That presents a challenge to the Fort, where for decades the learning experience was a passive one, absorbed, presumably, by school children, summer campers and vacationing families as they shuffled along the ramparts.
Interpretation is more important than ever, said Hill.
“We not only have to present history but historiography; how and why, for example, the reputations of figures like Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold are always being re-evaluated. We need to help our audiences develop a set of meta-skills that will enable them to ask the right questions, no matter what historic site they visit,” said Hill.
And in exhibitions like “Diorama-Rama: History in Miniature,” which displays historical dioramas fashioned in the 1950s, the Fort signals that it will also cast a curatorial eye on the ways in which Fort Ticonderoga itself has interpreted history.
“We have a history as a mid-century tourist attraction. We also have a history as the first example of a visitors’ destination inspired by the Colonial Revival. The reconstructed fort is itself an example of Colonial Revival architecture,” said Hill.
While the Pavilion was built in 1826, its restoration and interior decoration by Stephen H.P. and his wife Sarah G.T. Pell in 1909 was clearly inspired by the Colonial Revival movement. In fact, Stephen Pell may have planted some non-native trees, such as the black locust, because Jefferson had featured them in his landscape designs for the White House, Monticello and Poplar Forest.
As the current restoration of the Pavilion proceeds, the Fort’s staff is looking beyond the house and its formal gardens; they’re exploring the property’s history as a working farm.
This year, for example, visitors may have the opportunity to pluck heirloom apples from the property’s orchards and witness the re-introduction of Red Devon cattle and heritage chickens.
Hill also speaks of Fort Ticonderoga’s ambition to become “a learning campus.” That ambition will take another step toward realization this summer, when the Fort welcomes its first Edward W Pell Graduate Fellows, who will live in a converted boarding house owned by the Fort and work in a variety of programs. This fall, Fort Ticonderoga will
Expand its collaboration with the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins by hosting military leaders and scholars as they study the Battle of Valcour.
Fort Ticonderoga, of course, remains a popular attraction, and this year there will be plenty to occupy the tourist, from re-enactments to scavenger hunts. But could any of those activities be as interesting as watching Fort Ticonderoga emerge as a unique multi-disciplinary, multi-layered cultural institution?
“Ultimately, what you will be able to understand when you come here is the continuity linking of all our stories,” said Hill.