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Foundation reburied, but fort's history will live on at historic site

Monday, October 28, 2013
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— History, according to Schoharie Crossing historical site manager Janice Fontanella, is safer left buried.

In 2011, tropical storms Irene and Lee pushed Schoharie Creek over its banks and through the historical site, which is located in the hamlet of Fort Hunter. Flood waters moved outbuildings and ripped up the asphalt parking lot. In a classic silver lining situation, cleanup crews found the limestone remnants of the original Fort Hunter’s foundations in the eroded hole left by the water.

Archaeologists led by Michael Roets of the Bureau of Historic Sites got to work collecting English and Mohawk artifacts and documenting the placement of the 1750-era fort foundation.

It was a major find, but when the archaeologists finished their work, they just filled in the hole, burying the old foundation and planting grass like nothing happened.

“Frost would have moved the stones, or split them,” Fontanella said, “Or kids might have come and taken stones. Someone could have tripped. We figured the fort would be safer under 18 inches of dirt.”

As a site interpreter though, she felt bad about making people take her word on the fort’s existence.

“It’s right over there, believe me,” doesn’t really cut it for visitors, so last month she brought park maintenance workers to lay replica stones at ground level over the old foundations.

“We want people to see the foundations,” she said, “and be able to visualize. This is the real world. People want to see real things, not just our pictures.”

From a spot on the fresh new grass, the stones form a large square on the end of a stone line running west toward the road. That square, she said, marks the foundation of the northeast corner blockhouse, while the single line of stones marks the fort’s outer wall.

They’re just some regular stones, the type one might use in a backyard patio, but Fontanella said their installation is the beginning of a shift in the site’s historical priorities.

Originally, Schoharie Crossing was set aside by the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation for its canal history — the remnants of original Erie Canal locks. When Irene uncovered even older history, historic preservation staff were faced with a choice.

Around the base of the old fort, Roets found traces of Mohawk homes, dirt littered with shattered English teacups and native pipe stone. It wasn’t just the old fort, but proof of peaceful Mohawk and English interaction.

Fontanella said her historic preservation managers have yet to decide whether to stick with the site’s current, canal-related offerings or expand programming, but the new stone foundation outline suggests which way they’ll go.

“It’s our first effort to include the old fort in site interpretation,” she said.

For her part, Fontanella said the history of old Fort Hunter should be a big priority for the site. Schoharie Crossing hosted its annual Erie Canal birthday celebration over the weekend. A few Mohawk artifacts dug up from around the old foundations were shipped back from cleaning for viewing.

“A lot of people came just to see the artifacts,” she said, rather than the canal.

She didn’t have exact attendance numbers, but said in general that since the discovery of old Fort Hunter, more people have come through the site.

“Archaeology is a big draw,” she said.

 
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