Thursday, February 14, 2013

Improving Historical Interpretation at Ft. Ethan Allen

A couple years ago I took a tour of the Civil War forts of Arlington.  During the excursion, I learned that the county would be making much-needed improvements to the site of Ft. Ethan Allen, but timing seemed uncertain.  Built in the fall of 1861, the fort guarded the approaches to the strategic crossing of the Potomac River at Chain Bridge.  Today several earthworks survive and are preserved as part of Ft. Ethan Allen Park.  Unfortunately, visitors will find little in the way of interpretation aside from a couple historical markers.  (See here and here.)  All of this is about to change.

One of the existing historical markers at the entrance to Ft. Ethan Allen Park.  The remains of the fort's southern face can be seen in the background.
In 2011 Arlington provided $473,000 in funds to develop interpretive features at Ft. Ethan Allen Park.  The Arlington County Department of Community Planning, Housing, and Development has responsibility for the project, and the plans for the site were recently posted on-line.  According to a presentation by Arlington County, construction and installation of the new interpretative elements should be complete by late November 2013.  Arlington will recreate one of the fort's gun emplacements, complete with a 20-pounder Parrott.   Several markers will be placed across the site to explain different aspects of the fort, including the existing remains of the guard house, bombproof, and powder magazines.  The county will also install a 3-D model of Ft. Ethan Allen along with a memorial to the soldiers who garrisoned the fort.  If what Arlington did at Ft. C.F. Smith is any guide, we should be very excited to see the final results.

Remains of the bombproof at Ft. Ethan Allen
Arlington commissioned the project management firm Versar to conduct an archaeological survey of the impact of the planned improvements on the historic site.  The archaeologists investigated three locations where the county intends to place the interpretive features.  According to Versar's final report, the team "found little new evidence of Fort Ethan Allen’s past. . . ."  Unfortunately, "much of the ground surface has been significantly altered during the course of the 20th century."  The archaeologists discovered a few Civil War artifacts, including lead bullets, but "all of these appeared to have been moved around in the years since they were initially dropped or lost."  They also located the probable location of the fort's well, which was filled with rubble sometime last century.  Versar considered that "[t]he most significant surviving elements of the original fort appear to be the massive remains of the earthworks themselves clearly visible on the surface."  The report concluded that the interpretive elements "were unlikely to disturb any intact cultural deposits or features" and recommended that the 3-D model and memorial "be placed and constructed to avoid the well. . . ."* 

The improvements to Ft. Ethan Allen are a welcome addition to the park, which currently suffers from a lack of sufficient interpretation when compared to other local sites like Ft. C.F. Smith in Arlington and Ft. Ward in Alexandria.  Starting this fall, Ft. Ethan Allen will become an even more compelling destination in Northern Virginia for those interested in the defenses of Washington.  I will be sure to keep readers informed as the project at Ft. Ethan Allen progresses throughout the year.


*One of the best parts of the report is the digital recreation of Ft. Ethan Allen and environs.  (See p. 14.)  I only wish I had such computer graphics skills!

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