- The Washington Times - Monday, July 14, 2003

BALTIMORE (AP) — Fort McHenry’s sea wall, a 19th century granite barrier that protects it from the Patapsco River, is in a battle with nature.

Holes as long as 6 feet score it.

“Some cavities are 36 inches deep, more than half” of the wall’s depth, said Greg McGuire, the fort’s maintenance chief. “You could hide a person in some of these.”

The wall, built from 1816 to 1897 to keep the river from eroding the land, has been damaged by storms, tides and waves.

Faced with the possible collapse of whole sections, the National Park Service has embarked on a $1.25 million project to repair the foundation, and cracks and holes in 500 to 600 feet of the wall. The project should be completed this fall.

Work began last week after the construction of a coffer dam around the site. Workers erected a vinyl tarp anchored by sandbags and supported by steel posts to hold back the river, then pumped out the remaining water.

That created a dry, narrow, rectangular work area. In 1930, by contrast, men balanced on rafts at low tide to do repairs.

“The dam looks like a big shower curtain supported by large iron poles, and it goes in a big rectangle around the wall,” said park ranger Vincent J. Vaise. “It looks like a dike holding back the flood gates.”

The sea wall has undergone repairs every 20 to 30 years, Mr. Vaise said. Since the last major restoration in 1979, the wall’s foundation has weakened and begun to cave in.

“The constant pounding of the surf has caused the soil to wash out behind the wall and under the wall, causing sections of the wall to slump inward,” he said. “So we’re rebuilding the very foundation of the sea wall.”

Workers are filling the holes with granite chunks that crumbled from the wall, Mr. McGuire said.

“Neither I nor the landscape architects had substantial concerns about some loss of integrity to the historic fabric of the wall,” said John Pousson, park archaeologist. “The project has been designed from the beginning with the aim of preserving as much of the historic integrity as possible.”

Before repairs could move forward, fort staff searched underwater for artifacts, weapons and shells, including any left from the British bombardment during the War of 1812. Some might still be dangerous.

“We know that the British lobbed something in the neighborhood of 1,500 shells at the fort. Some did burst in the air, and some made it to land, but where are the rest?” asked Susan Langley, survey head and underwater archaeologist of the state Department of Housing and Community Development. “If you can only account for 400 of them, where are the rest?”

Nothing was uncovered except for a few relics flung by strollers in the early 1900s.

Illustrations of the fort from the 19th and early 20th centuries show residents strolling along the sea wall. For many area residents, the fort and sea wall have become a part of their memories.

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