YOUNGSTOWN – Across the Niagara River from Canada and tucked in a strategic corner of Fort Niagara State Park where the river empties into Lake Ontario, Old Fort Niagara contains more than three centuries of history within its storied walls.
The French established Fort Conti here in 1679, building a permanent fortification in 1726, known today as the French Castle. The British took over the fort in 1759 during the French and Indian War and held it through the American Revolution. They were forced by treaty to turn it over to the U.S. in 1796 but recaptured it in 1813 during the War of 1812. They ceded it again to the U.S. in 1815, and it has served as a peaceful border post ever since, used during the Civil War as well as both World Wars, with the last U.S. unit withdrawing in 1963.
Today, it is operated by the not-for-profit Old Fort Niagara Association, in cooperation with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Open year-round, the fort is known for its engaging living history programs, ranging from hands-on experiences to boisterous skirmish re-enactments.
The spotlight has been shining even brighter on the fort these days, with the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. Robert L. Emerson, the fort’s executive director for the past 16 years, recently took a few minutes to discuss his own history, the fort and what to expect on the upcoming Dec. 19 anniversary date of the British attack.
The history of the fort is well-documented, and we know that your wife, Catherine, is the Niagara County historian, but what’s your personal history?
I was born in Altoona, Pa., and went to Dickinson College in Carlisle, where I majored in political science and German. I had been the director of a historical site and, later, a museum for 13 years in Lancaster, when I saw the executive director position open at Old Fort Niagara in 1997. My introduction to the fort had actually been as a participant (as a re-enactor) in an event probably in 1980, and it has always been one of my favorite historical sites in the whole world.
We have twins – Will and Suzannah, who will be 22 – and they are both interested in history and have participated as re-enactors.
What is the fort’s most popular event?
Our French and Indian War Encampment (held July 4th each year) is our biggest event, and we average around 1,000 re-enactors for that event. In 2009, we had 2,300 re-enactors for the 250th anniversary.
What has been your proudest accomplishment to date at the fort?
It’s probably been raising funds for the new Visitors Center and improving the exhibits, which was a $7 million project. It opened in 2006. I don’t mean to say I did this – we had a lot of people pitching in to bring this to fruition. But the Visitors Center allows us to tell the story of the fort before people go into the fort. The fort has a long and complex history – 1726 to 1963 is a long time.
What is most meaningful about your job?
Over the years, we’ve been able to garner more and more community support for the fort, and that has been really satisfying. What I like about this job is that there is something different every day. We try and raise money; there are speaking engagements; and occasionally – although not very often – I get to participate in living history programs.
What would you try to improve?
One thing that is troublesome is that the number of school field trips is down. We used to have up around 15,000 school kids a year, and we’ll have 10,000 this year. The numbers correlate exactly with the school districts’ budgets. Transportation is probably their biggest cost.
We have had a couple of things that have helped with this. We had a federal grant through the U.S. Department of Justice for youth-at-risk, and we offered them an intensive Living History experience here. The thought was that if we exposed these kids to history – showed them it was interesting by getting them involved in hands-on activities – we could decrease truancy and increase scores, and it did happen in small ways. We tracked them over three years and served about 2,100 kids.
The Grigg-Lewis Foundation sends Lockport fourth-graders here every year, and the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area sends Niagara Falls schoolchildren here. They polled about 400 schoolchildren in Niagara Falls and found that only four had ever been to the fort, so that shows the need for this. The Niagara Area Foundation, 1812 Legacy Council and Niagara County Committee of the Niagara Greenway Commission have also helped bring schoolchildren here.
Why do you believe this is important?
There are lots of different learning styles – some learn by watching, others are more tactile learners, and some just listen. The great thing about a historical site or museum is that it engages all of these different learning styles at the same time. It’s a learning environment that can’t be duplicated in a classroom … I always say that to be a good citizen, you have to have a basic understanding of your region and your country. It’s good for kids to be exposed to the past in a way that is engaging and memorable.
This has been a very big year for the fort, with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. What are your thoughts?
Our attendance has doubled in the past two years and mainly through Asian tourism. There’s been a real expansion, and that’s a good thing, because it allows us to sustain some of our public programs that we couldn’t afford to do otherwise.
We’ve also had long-standing preservation issues, which we had to put off addressing because of funding constraints, but the state Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation has been supporting some preservation projects here. They are currently working on a masonry project to help restore our walls. They finished a window restoration project in the French Castle and some other buildings where water was actually getting in. And they put roofs on five buildings and upgraded the electric a few years ago.
We are pretty self-sufficient here through our admissions fees and our museum shop, and 30 percent of our budget comes from community donations. We’ve had an increase in community support in the past 10 to 15 years.
What do you have planned for Dec. 19 – the 200th anniversary of the British attack on the fort and Youngstown?
We want to replicate this assault as closely as we can, and we want it to be an authentic experience, so we will let people into the fort (free) between 4:30 and 4:45 a.m. on Dec. 19. They have to be here by then because British soldiers will charge the gates at 5 a.m., and we have to have spectators in a safe area before then. We expect over 100 re-enactors that day, which surprised us because it’s so early in the morning, but if I was a British re-enactor, this would be really high on my bucket list to participate in this because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
We’ve worked in cooperation with several towns in the area, and there are a number of events going on that day. After the assault at the fort, there will be a commemoration of the burning of the Village of Youngstown in Falkner Park at 7:15 a.m. and historical programs at 8:15 a.m. at St. John’s Episcopal Church. At 9:30 a.m., 650 students from Lewiston-Porter, Wilson, Stella Niagara and Tuscarora Elementary will arrive at the fort for an educational program about the attack.
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