From the Field

Forts Are Not Just For Dads After All


I would never consider myself an expert on historical forts, or a particularly experienced park visitor in any regard. Visiting a fort was always something I associated as a “dad activity”--maybe because the vast majority of forts I’ve been to have been with my father, or maybe because it is truly one of those typical “dad quirks”, like dad jokes or cargo shorts. So, needless to say, I was expecting Fort McHenry to be an interesting place but not something I would feel compelled to visit again out of my own personal interest. And, like forts for dads, admitting I’m wrong is a hobby of mine. It happens so often that I might as well embrace it.  

I was immediately drawn in when I first drove into the park’s entrance and felt completely removed from Baltimore. Driving there, you pass through a quaint city neighborhood and then briefly past an industrial and commercial area where you happen upon the gateway into the park. It’s a one-way, walled entrance with minimal signage that starts to make you second guess that where you’re driving is legal. But once you pass through, it opens up into sprawling open green space.

I started in the Visitor Center, which is located a little farther into the park and out of the line of sight upon immediate arrival. The Visitor Center, built in  March of 2011, features interpretive and educational materials about the history of the Fort. A crowd pleasing favorite is their short film that features the story behind the National Anthem. During a battle defending the Baltimore Harbor against the British Navy in the War of 1812 the Fort raised the flag Mary Pickersgill was contracted to sew and upon seeing it in the “dawn’s early light” Francis Scott Key was inspired to write the lyrics to what is now known as the Star-Spangled Banner. There is also a daily flag changing ceremony where you can assist a park ranger in raising a replica of the Star-Spangled Banner at 9:30 AM and 4:20 PM every day.

From there I ambled into the historic fort where I observed three levels of touring options: the neutral main path, the path atop the fort, and then inside of the various structures sub-ground; all of which provided a different viewpoint and illustration of the events being interpreted. For example, standing atop the fort wall looking out over the Patapsco River I felt both exposed and protected. I could see everything so clearly, but that also meant everyone could see me. Then, walking down some steps into underground rooms where artillery was stored or protection was offered, it was much easier to imagine hunkering in. Maybe I’ve watched too many period movies, but touring the fort put the historic events on display in the Visitor Center in perspective and allowed for more than just a static experience; you could imagine the history.

My favorite aspect though may have simply been the grounds outside of the immediate fort walls. Granted, it was an absolutely perfect day--cloudless, 80, and breezy. As I followed the perimeter pathway along the water, trying to ignore the blisters forming on the bottoms of my feet, there were couples riding bikes past me, people reading and napping in the shade, others enjoying a leisurely chat on a park bench….and I found myself envious of them. I wanted to come back and lay in the grass and listen to the birds and watch the ships roll across the water! It was such a tantalizingly perfect day and the atmosphere and setting were of those that offered romanticized visits--a perfect template for a picnic in a park, overlooking the water and the city skyline, under a shady tree enjoying the space that was so fiercely protected during the War of 1812.

Margaret Markham

Margaret Markham is a former program fellow in the National Park Service office focused on geographic information systems and policy issues. She is a Finger Lakes, NY native and fosters a passion for conservation and environmental stewardship.

June 12, 2015

Main image: Image courtesy: Sandy Rodgers / National Park Service
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