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Historic upstate N.Y. fort weathers financial crisis

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TICONDEROGA, N.Y. (AP) — Beth Hill pauses in her telling of Fort Ticonderoga's storied history as three young men dressed in colonial garb and armed with muskets fire a volley from the stone ramparts of the reconstructed fortress located on a bluff overlooking Lake Champlain's southern end.

Over a 30-year period following the original fortification's construction by the French in 1755, the bastion was besieged, blown up twice, abandoned and allowed to fall into ruin, its stones pilfered by locals into the early 19th century. The newer version, rebuilt as a tourist attraction more than a century ago, hasn't had to fend off any frontal assaults, but it did weather a recent financial crisis that threatened to close the fort, one of the nation's oldest and most significant historic sites.

"It's a tremendous legacy to continue and I take the responsibility very seriously," said Hill, executive director of the Fort Ticonderoga Association, the private not-for-profit organization that owns and operates the site.

Hill took over last year, two years after what was possibly the site's most tumultuous period since the British pulled out during the American Revolution. When she arrived here in May 2010, the fort was trying to rebound from the economic downturn, a steady decrease in attendance and the defection of a major donor.

In 2008, Peter Paine Jr., president of the Fort Ticonderoga board of trustees, told board members that shutting down for at least a year was one of several drastic options facing the fort if the financial problems weren't remedied.

"It was a difficult patch," Paine, chairman of Champlain National Bank, said in a phone interview from his home in Manhattan. "Things have really turned around since then, I'm happy to say."

Others in the heritage tourism business are happy to hear it as well, given the original Fort Ticonderoga's iconic place in American history. And historic preservation advocates offer some huzzahs, as well.

"Ticonderoga has a huge history and it is really not a good sign when they have visitation difficulties," said Colin Campbell, president of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the not-for-profit educational institution that operates the Virginia tourist attraction.

"None of these organizations stay fabulous forever. They have their ups and downs," said Wendy Nicholas, Boston-based director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's northeast office. "But I think what they're doing is very good. I think there's reason for optimism and reason for folks to go visit."

Much of that optimism stems from the arrival of Hill, an energetic 41-year-old who came to Ticonderoga after seven years in charge of Fort Dobbs, a state-owned French and Indian War historic site in North Carolina.

It's up to her to boost attendance at a time of high gasoline prices, economic uncertainty and ever-elusive sources of private and government funding.

She's attempting to balance the fort's traditional attractions — musket and cannon firings, period costumes, rooms of artifacts on display — with newer methods of drawing visitors to this remote part of the southeastern Adirondacks 85 miles north of Albany. The new tactics include using social media tools, redesigning the fort's website, rotating exhibits and hosting educational programs after the site closes for the season in October.

But on a recent afternoon, it's the crack of muskets and the allure of "capturing" the fort from the British that holds the attention of the scores of children tagging along behind the fort's uniformed staff.

"It's interactive," said Susan Elenin of Chesterland, Ohio, during a recent visit with her husband, Paul, and their two young sons, ages 6 and 10. "If you had to stand in line and wait to get through it, it would be very boring."

Construction on the original fort began in 1755, when the French controlled Ticonderoga, derived from the Iroquois name for the heights separating the northern end of Lake George and the southern end of Lake Champlain, part of the waterway system linking New York and Canada. The British captured the fort in 1759, during the French and Indian War, and the outpost changed hands several times between the redcoats and Americans during Revolutionary War. It fell into disrepair in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

New York merchant William Ferris Pell bought what remained of the crumbling fortifications and nearly 550 surrounding acres in 1820. Pell's grandson began restoring the fort in 1909, making it one of the nation's first historic preservation projects.

The fort was a major tourist attraction through the 20th century. Annual attendance has topped 100,000 12 times since 1980, but began to decline steadily after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Attendance dipped to fewer than 71,000 in 2009.

Last year, attendance rebounded slightly to 71,200, and fort officials are optimistic they've turned things around. The fort's finances have been stabilized and the organization is debt-free, Paine said.

"We're very pleased with the leadership Beth has brought to the scene," he said. "Things are definitely looking up."

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Online:

Fort Ticonderoga: www.fort-ticonderoga.org

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