- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 25, 2001

Fort Washington: From fortress to recreation area

It's hard to believe a site as peaceful as Fort Washington Park once was used to protect the homeland against the vagaries of war. But indeed, the 341-acre fort in Prince George's County evolved as part of a system to protect the entire East Coast from naval attack.

Today, the park contains the physical remains of several fortification structures representing evolution in American defense, including a drawbridge, cannons, jail cells and gun platforms. Stunning views of the District and the Virginia shoreline are a bonus.

Fort Warburton, the first fort to be built on this location, was completed in 1809, based on 18th-century French notions of military architecture and strategy. Several wars, numerous conflicts and countless permutations later, by 1921 and the advent of the airplane, Fort Washington no longer was needed as a coastal defense but still was used as a training base.

In 1946, the fort was deactivated and turned over to the Department of the Interior. Today, it serves as a recreation area for history buffs, naturalists and those who seek peace and quiet.

Visitors to the park drive through the gate and enter a world of serenity the fields and structural remains culminate in a huge fort overlooking the Potomac River.

“We're a little oasis here,” says Don Steiner, a National Park Service ranger who has worked at the park for 31 years. Many days he can be found seated at the information desk, housed within the old senior commissioned officers' quarters, ready to answer any questions lobbed his way.

“Here we have a nice, clean, quiet park where people can come and look at Washington,” Mr. Steiner says. “People want to come out and ensure their country still exists. And we have the best view of the Potomac River from the whole way to the Washington Monument to Mount Vernon to the south that's our million-dollar view.”

He says the fort heartened citizens of days gone by as well.

“People were reassured by this big visible structure on the river,” he says. “It was a visible symbol that the world was all there and looking out for them.”

One way the fort provided protection was via 24-pounder guns huge cannons, actually which had an effective range of 1,800 to 1,900 yards. Guns of that size, according to one exhibit, could effectively control the river passage in front of the fort.

Visitors are free to wander the grounds. Stepping into an old fort, they cross a drawbridge operated by a unique system of iron counterweights and chains, designed to close rapidly in case of land attack. In the guardroom are two cells once used to discipline the soldiers of the garrison.

Calvert County residents Alan Hickey and his fiancee, Grace Warriner, visiting with Mr. Hickey's two young children, peer into the dark, dank cells, musing about the former occupants. They have found themselves at Fort Washington this day, Mr. Hickey says, to spend the day “doing something positive” with the children.

“We wanted to bring the kids down here to teach them the history of the fort,” he says.

“I love it here,” Ms. Warriner says. “To be able to come in and read the displays and find out what was going on before we were born.”

Mr. Hickey says he has been coming to the fort since he was a teen-ager. “I like the view of the water. It's a nice, calming place,” he says.

Those interested in examining yesteryear through living-history interpretations can enjoy this pastime at Fort Washington. On the first Sunday of every month from April through November, Fort Washington hosts field artillery demonstrations.

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