Fort George Digs, Publicity, Spur Calls for Visitors Interpretive Center to be Built at Park
For Russell Bellico, a renewed national interest in Fort George suggests that this is the perfect time to launch a campaign to build a visitors’ interpretive center at the park, which was the site of battlefields, forts and hospitals from the French and Indian Wars through the War of 1812.
“The ruins of Fort George were a tourist attraction in the nineteenth century,” said Bellico. “A visitors’ interpretive center would renew interest in the park, which is an excellent example of an eighteenth century fort and battleground, and attract visitors interested in history to the whole area.”
David Starbuck, the archeologist who is conducting SUNY Adirondack’s Archaeology Field School at Fort George this summer, agrees.
“I’m here eight hours a day, five days a week, and we don’t see many people. The site is under-utilized. You need something to pull people in. I think a Visitors’ center is a great idea,” said Starbuck.
The Lake George Battlefield Park/ Fort George Alliance, an organization established in 2002 to assist the Department of Environmental Conservation in its efforts to protect the site while, at the same time, enhancing public appreciation of its significance, also support the proposal.
At a meeting on May 18, the group’s directors voted unanimously to start advocating for a visitors center.
According to Bellico, who is commonly acknowledged as the pre-eminent historian of Lake George’s military and maritime past, the ideal location is a little-used picnic pavilion that could be enclosed and used to display artifacts from recent archaeological digs and even a bateau that now sits in storage in Albany.
Bellico sees in Mount Independence, opposite Fort Ticonderoga on the Vermont side of Lake Champlain, a model for what could be done at Fort George. First, he said, sunken boats were discovered near the shore of the Revolutionary War fort, then artifacts were discovered as archaeologists such as David Starbuck conducted digs at the fort, and finally, a visitors’ center to house the artifacts uncovered there opened in 1996.
For Starbuck himself, the lesson from Mount Independence is that historic sites complement rather than compete with one another.
“Collectively, Fort William Henry and the Fort George park could be a great draw. No other site has as many stories to tell as Fort George has, among them, the fact that George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson all stayed here, and the fact that during the American Revolution, Fort George was the largest military hospital in America. Fort William Henry has the single best story: its capture by Montcalm and the events that became the basis of ‘Last of the Mohicans,’” said Starbuck.
Shortly after the Alliance took its vote on May 18, the park received national attention when Alliance president Lynn Hohmann organized a Memorial Day ceremony at a tomb for four unknown soldiers from the French and Indian War that was erected in the park in 1935.
“It’s the oldest, government-recognized tomb for unknown soldiers in the country,” Hohmann said last week at the Lake George Historical museum, where she presented a lecture on Fort George. “These four soldiers represent 140 other soldiers who were killed in the Battle of Lake George. There was only one British officer present at that engagement, so these were Americans. They were our ancestors.”
“It’s a beautiful park, but it’s so much more than that. If you don’t know about its history, you’d think it was just a picnic area. But people died here,” said Hohmann, a physician now working for the state’s Department of Health on Medicaid reform.
For the past several years, Hohmann has dedicated herself to promoting public awareness of Fort George, including working as a volunteer at SUNY Adirondack’s Archaeology Field School.
The dig is the third conducted by Starbuck at Fort George, and it, too has received national publicity.
“I’ve received emails from across the country from people interested in participating in the digs,” said Starbuck.
Excavations in 2000 and 2001 revealed walls from two buildings, as well as a surprisingly large number of artifacts.
The Lake George Battlefield Park/ Fort George Alliance group raised the money needed to conserve the artifacts, which are now in storage in the New York State Museum in Albany.
Properly displayed in a Visitors Center, and supported by interactive media, the artifacts would help tell the multi-layered story of Fort George, said Starbuck.
“Visitors need something lively to be drawn in,” said Starbuck. “People don’t read a lot, and the schools are less interested in teaching American history. Perhaps in the attempt to teach everybody else’s history, so as to make everyone feel better, we’ve forgotten our shared, collective history. Only through sites like this does that history begin to sink in.”