Park historian stumped by fort mystery

Sunday, May 19, 2002

BIG POOL, Md. -- Fort Frederick, the cornerstone of Maryland's frontier defense during the French and Indian War, is an awesome, unfinished puzzle.

During the American Revolution, Fort Frederick was a prison for Hessian and British soldiers. The state sold it in 1791 and it passed through a number of private owners, including one who tended livestock and fruit trees inside the enclosure.

By the time the state repurchased the fortress in 1922, its walls were crumbling and there was nothing inside to indicate soldiers once were housed there.

Ross Kimmel was a graduate student in his late 20s when he started researching the roots of the fort. Nearly 30 years later, he's still stumped -- baffled by missing details of the gun decks that protected the massive stone structure, puzzled by the design of its officers' quarters.

Kimmel, chief historian for the state parks, is appealing to the public for help in locating drawings or documents that would help the state accurately reconstruct those features by 2006, the fort's 250th anniversary year.

Located in Fort Frederick State Park near Interstate 70, about 90 miles west of Baltimore, the fort has grayish-brown sandstone walls 17 feet high and 3 feet to 4 feet thick.

Inside the one-third mile perimeter are 1.5 acres of grass where colonial soldiers drilled and prepared for attacks that never came.

Today, the enlisted men's barracks are back in place -- two long, white, two-story wood-frame structures that were reconstructed in the 1970s to Kimmel's specifications.

Missing is the officers' quarters, or Governor's House, a smaller building that stood on a foundation excavated in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Also missing are whatever structures the soldiers would have stood atop while aiming muskets and cannons over the high walls. Kimmel said nothing supports a theory that a wooden catwalk once ringed the interior walls, and there is no archaeological evidence of earthen mounds in the fort's four corners, or bastions.

It's not for want of looking. In what became a career-long frustration, Kimmel has been combing records for clues to Fort Frederick's design since 1973.

Most irritating are the near misses: old-timers whose recollections of the ruins conflict when pressed for details; a man who claimed to have the plans but never produced them during a seven-year cat-and-mouse game.

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