Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the National Association for Interpretations national conference in Hampton, VA. NAI is the professional organization for park rangers, nature guides, museum curators, etc… Basically if you talk to the public about nature or history, NAI is the professional organization for it.

One of the most exciting events held during the conference was the field trip on Friday. Out of the many options, I chose “Ft. Monroe Interpretative Work in Progress.” Ft. Monroe is a brand new unit of the National Park Service, as in of November 1, 2011 new. The whole point of the field trip was to take a behind the scenes look at setting up a new NPS site.

I will freely admit that I did not have the best reasons for picking this trip. While I was somewhat curious at how you create a new monument, my real reason was to check another part of the NPS off my life list (33% of all NPS sites complete!). I just wasn’t that interested in the fort itself. I was “oh my not another system three fort.” For those of you who are not history buffs or live anywhere other than the East Coast, system three forts are a group of 42 massive stone forts that were built all up and down the eastern seaboard after the war of 1812 to protect key areas. The NPS already has quite a few of them protected with Ft. Warren, Ft. Hancock, Ft. Wadsworth, Ft. Sumter, Ft. Pulaski, Ft. Jefferson, Ft. Massachusetts, Ft. McRee, Ft. Point lying within NPS units. These forts are all built from the same general plan so, if you’ve seen one you've seen them all. So why do we need another one?

Well, it turns out there are some very good reasons for Ft. Monroe to join the system. Perhaps the most important is that it was the first (and largest) of the system three forts. It’s not just another cookie cutter fort, it created the mold from which all other system three forts were made.

It also was quite distinguished in the Civil War. It always remained in Union hands. Think about it, this is a fort in Virginia and it NEVER fell to the Confederates. In fact, the forts defenses were so good they didn't even try to take the fort. Because it was a Union stronghold deep within the confederacy this led to the Peninsula Campaign, a botched attempt early in the war to seize Richmond, the Confederate capitol. This is also where a Union General Benjamin F. Butler declared slaves, who came into the possession of Union troops, to be “contraband of war.” While this in no way declared that slaves were human and had rights, it did lead to massive slave runaways and was a stepping stone in the abolition of slavery.

The "freedom gate" that contraband slaves passed through.
The other thing that I found fascinating about the fort was the fort’s town. Most forts when handed over to the NPS are first left to languish for about 10 years, letting most of their structures decay. With Ft. Monroe, the transfer was almost immediate; everything is left intact. A partner of the park, the Ft. Monroe Authority is currently finding new uses for the forts buildings so that in the future the area will look just like it does now.

The fort's old hotel is now an assisted living facility thanks to the Ft. Monroe Authority.
This rapid turnover, we found, was the main problem in creating the park. The army pretty much went “here’s the keys, have fun!” and left. The NPS and the Authority then had the unenviable task of trying to keep the fort open to the public while learning how everything works.

One of the truisms in working with the parks is that most people don’t really know or care who owns and runs the park as long as they can keep doing what they have been doing; Army, NPS, Ft. Monroe Authority, doesn't matter. When change comes though, people get mad. Nothing drove this home for the NPS more than the issue of Ft. Monroe’s flag. The army, by law, is required to take down the American flag when they decommission a base. This is what they did when they left the fort, and the NPS arrived just in time to get the masses of complaints over there not being a flag. The poor NPS staffers, all two of them, spent several frustrating weeks with negotiating with the army and the powers that be just to get the flag back.

I have no doubt that someday Ft. Monroe will be a great member of the NPS. I am just grateful that I am not one of the ones that have to set it up. Fight on Ft. Monroe staff!!!!



11/26/2012 11:40:10 pm

Sounds like an informative trip! Reminds me some of Fort Vancouver in WA, which the army has just recently completely turned over to NPS.

11/29/2012 12:57:56 am

Not surprised. The army has a habit of uniform construction. They also like carrying bits and pieces over from previous designs. The third system forts have parts that go all the way back to mideval castles.


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    Alex Emert

    An oudoorsman for many a year the Roaming Ranger is a seasonal ranger for the National Park Service.

    NOTE: All opinions expressed in this site are solely my own and are not intended to represent any organization I have worked for.


    December 2012
    November 2012



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