It looks like the stars may be aligning to permanently preserve a significant portion of Fort Monroe, a U.S. Army fortress that has been standing guard over the mouth of the Hampton Roads harbor for more than 175 years.
The fort, which has been an active military base since it was built between 1819 and 1834, is scheduled to be decommissioned by the Pentagon next month, and much of the property will be returned to the Commonwealth of Virginia. The question is, what happens then?
Fort Monroe is brimming with history. According to the U.S. Army, as early as 1608 Captain John Smith recognized the military importance of the site. Old Point Comfort is also where the first African slaves were landed in the English colonies in 1618. A young Army Lieutenant Robert E. Lee was stationed at Fort Monroe early in his career and helped complete the design and construction of it.
During the Civil War, the fort was a crucial Union base of operations and became a haven for escaped slaves when its commander, Major General Benjamin Butler, declared them contraband of war and gave them safe harbor, thus forever making Fort Monroe a historic and symbolic site of African-American freedom. After the war, former Confederate President Jefferson Davis was held prisoner at the fort for two years.
But Old Point Comfort is also a site rich in environmental potential. Because of the property’s prominence overlooking the mouth of Hampton Roads and the Chesapeake Bay, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) sees golden opportunities there for environmental restoration and education. Recreating living shorelines, oyster beds, and riparian buffers and reducing stormwater runoff would not only help improve water quality, wildlife, and marine life, but also enhance the property for tourism and recreation and provide much-needed natural protection from storms and floods.
Now a growing consensus of citizens and politicians wants President Obama to declare parts of the property a national monument, which he has the authority to do under the federal Antiquities Act, or Congress to pass legislation designating parts of the property a national park.
Local officials and Virginia politicians on both sides of the aisle and at all levels seem to agree that a Park Service presence is welcome, although differences remain over how much of the site should be protected. In June, after U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar visited Fort Monroe, bipartisan legislation supporting the fort’s preservation -- the Fort Monroe National Historical Park Establishment Act of 2011 -- was introduced in Congress.
To gage public sentiment, the Park Service held two public meetings in Hampton, Va., last month, and support from the packed house was nearly unanimous for a National Park Service presence. The Park Service also asked for written public comments and received a surprising response.
“I think there’s almost 2,000, of which – from what I understand – it’s like unanimous, which is almost unheard of, that a portion of Fort Monroe be established as a unit of the National Park Service,” said National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis in The Daily Press this week.
CBF Scientist Chris Moore spoke at the July public hearing.
“The Chesapeake Bay Foundation believes a National Park Service unit at Fort Monroe represents an exciting opportunity to combine Bay restoration with public access and land and historical preservation activities. Fort Monroe can truly be a comprehensive example of successful watershed restoration activities as Virginia, the other bay states, and the District of Columbia begin implementation of the new pollution reduction plan, the Chesapeake Bay TMDL.”
Other groups calling for Park Service involvement include the Chesapeake Conservancy, Civil War Trust, National Trust for Historic Preservation, National Parks Conservation Association, and The Trust for Public Land.
While the Park Service public comment has closed, it’s not too late to let members of Congress know what you think should happen to Fort Monroe. If you agree the property should be preserved, contact your congressional representatives and urge them to support the Fort Monroe National Historical Park Establishment Act of 2011.
This is too significant a piece of American history -- and Chesapeake Bay heritage -- to lose.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
Photo credits: Aerial of Fort Monroe, Citizens for a Fort Monroe National Park; Civil War drawing, courtesy of the Casemate Museum at Fort Monroe; living shoreline, CBF.