October 5, 2008

EDITORIAL: Fort Montgomery needs saving

Fort Montgomery is like the Rodney Dangerfield of old stone forts: It gets no respect.

Located just northeast of Rouses Point at the strategic site where the Richelieu River meets Lake Champlain, the list of indignities the misunderstood monument has had to bear is a long one.

The sad chronology was featured recently in the fall issue of the Press-Republican's North Country Scene magazine.

Confused with an earlier fort that was mistakenly built in Canada, for years it's been called "Fort Blunder." It was derided for being built after the War of 1812, too late to contribute to that effort. And, worst of all, beginning in 1936, a major portion of it was torn down to form the foundation of the old Rouses Point bridge.

But the fort deserves better. For many decades it stood imposingly near the border serving as a deterrent for invasions at a time when the course of history was far from certain. Potential conflicts were avoided and not a shot was fired in anger. The peace was kept, the greatest success story any fort could have.

And it was once a grand old structure, a state-of-the-art military facility. It took hundreds of stonemasons nearly 30 years to build. Five bastions and three stories of arched stone surrounded a huge inner parade ground. Quarters for 800 troops were protected by a moat and drawbridge, and its formidable guns could propel a 128-pound cannonball nearly three miles.

But the lack of a major battle there worked to its detriment, and it never gained traction as a major historic site worthy of preservation.

Not that people haven't tried. The late Victor Podd, former owner and father of the current owners, planned to donate the fort to the state and its causeway to the town for a beach in exchange for permission to develop a marina and build on an adjacent commons area. Inexplicably, the state didn't want it.

The current owners have tried every method they could think of to sell it, including on eBay, but to no avail.

So now it sits in ruins. In April 1980, a huge portion of the northwest bastion collapsed into the moat, and cracks in the rest of the structure have raised concerns that a similar fate awaits the rest of the fort.

And there are other obstacles. Liability is an acute concern, as the unstable structure has long been used as a party spot for teens. Also, the location is surrounded by environmentally sensitive wetlands.

But the potential as a historic landmark and tourist destination -- accessible by car, bus or boat -- is undeniable. In fact, it can be seen by the preservation of a similar landmark, Fort Lennox, just a 20-minute drive upriver in Isle aux Noir, Quebec.

Fort Lennox, a National Historic Site of Canada, has been beautifully restored. It's history is recounted by a welcoming, knowledgable staff. It's become a must-see for visitors to southern Quebec, and clearly shows the potential of Fort Montgomery.

Let's hope someone -- the state, a responsible developer or a temporary steward such as the Nature Consevancy -- recognizes that potential before it's too late.