Friday, February 19, 2016

Save the Fort: a textbook illustration of how historic preservation can link past and present

It was a distinctive sight: early nineteenth-century fortifications overlooking the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers on what was once the frontier. The greatest and most iconic remnant was the great Round Tower, said to be the oldest surviving building in Minnesota. It was moreover a sight I saw every week as a child, when my parents drove from suburban Bloomington to Saint Paul.

The Tower was so iconic in part because it was one of the few well-preserved parts of the original Fort. Added to and used continuously through World War II, the site deteriorated thereafter. Although designated a National Landmark, the Upper Post was, as I noted some years ago, placed on the list of "most endangered" historic sites in 2006.

There is a new call to restore and rehabilitate the Fort in time for its bicentennial in 2020, and the reasons are powerful. The editors of Minneapolis Star Tribune this week made a good case for this major effort and expenditure, citing, as I did several years ago, the striking range of historical episodes that the site witnessed, though these associations are unfortunately anything but common knowledge. It is logical for preservationists and public historians to concentrate on early history--the firsts--but if we do so at the expense of all that came afterward, we do both history and the present an injustice:
But representation of what came before and after the fort’s first decade would be added. There’s a rich story to tell: the long Dakota ties to the spot and the tragedy of the 1862 Dakota War; the fur trade of the 17th century; the fort’s significance to U.S. westward expansion; the presence of African-American slaves, including Dred Scott, and the contributions to two world wars. Attention would be paid to the fort’s role in diversifying Minnesota’s population, society CEO Stephen Elliott promises. For example, the fort’s use as an intelligence training center for Japanese-American troops during World War II led to the state’s first sizable Japanese-American settlement.

Telling more of Fort Snelling’s story should allow more people to see themselves in Minnesota’s past. That in turn should deepen their connection to this state and its future. The Legislature must act this year to make that vision a reality in time for the fort’s 2020 bicentennial. They shouldn’t let that chance slip away
This is exactly what historic preservation should be about.

What first prompted me to write about the Fort back in 2010 and 2011 was another childhood memory--or rather, a romantic legend. I had learned that Count Zeppelin made his first balloon ascent from Fort Snelling's Round Tower while serving as an observer with the Union troops during the Civil War. According to that scenario, he was hooked on aeronautics and the rest, as they say, is history. Or was it? Read on.

h.t. National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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