Bay Journal

Fort Monroe a monument for the Chesapeake, nation

  • By Charlie Stek on July 01, 2011
The Fort Monroe/Old Point Comfort peninsula offers tremendous opportunities to open up new and sorely needed recreational access to the Bay for such recreational activities and outdoor experiences as swimming, hiking, biking, boating and birding.  (Air US Army)

From Theodore Roosevelt to George W. Bush, presidents have used the Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities to conserve some of our nation's greatest national treasures - large and small - by establishing them as national monuments.

In the West, it was used to preserve such jewels in our National Park Service system as the Grand Canyon, Zion and Grand Teton. Here in the East, President Dwight Eisenhower proclaimed the C&O Canal as a national monument in 1961, 10 years before Congress enacted legislation to re-designate it as a national historical park.

Today, these monuments/parks are visited and enjoyed by millions of Americans each year and it is hard to imagine what our country would be like without them.

There is now an opportunity to similarly conserve an outstanding part of the nation's and the Chesapeake's natural and cultural heritage - Fort Monroe - by designating it as the country's newest national monument. In September, the Army will be vacating the 565-acre property located next to the City of Hampton, VA, near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

With its spectacular resources and rich heritage dating to the Chesapeake's earliest native inhabitants and to Capt. John Smith's explorations of Bay, the fort, and the peninsula on which it sits, are unquestionably of national and historic significance and worthy of monument designation by the president.

Smith and the first settlers named this point of land Point Comfort for the comfort it provided after their arduous journeys to the New World and around the Chesapeake Bay. It was the disembarkation point for the first African slaves brought to this country in 1619.

The point also played a role in the Revolutionary War and in the War of 1812. In fact, the nation's largest moat encircled granite fort was constructed at the site in response to the British invasion. The fort was named in honor of President James Monroe and came to be known as the "Gibraltar of the Chesapeake."

During the Civil War, the fort served as a sanctuary to slaves fleeing the South and was called "Freedom's Fortress." President Abraham Lincoln visited the fort and Jefferson Davis was imprisoned here after the Civil War.

In recognition of this rich history, the fort and more than 150 buildings, within and outside of the fort, were recognized as a national historic landmark district in 1960.

In short, Fort Monroe meets the Antiquities Act's fundamental test of federal lands that contain "historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest."

What's more, the Fort Monroe/Old Point Comfort peninsula offers tremendous opportunities to open up new and sorely needed recreational access to the Chesapeake and make a significant contribution to the protection and public enjoyment of the Bay. It is home to beautiful and rare Chesapeake Bay beaches and live oak trees dating back 400 years. Other natural features provide exceptional recreational activities and outdoor experiences, including swimming, hiking, biking, boating and birding for the citizens of Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay Region. These new opportunities will not only spur new recreation and tourism jobs, but help foster citizen stewardship of the Chesapeake and improve public access along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake and the Star Spangled Banner National Historic Trails.

There is strong public support for designating Fort Monroe as a national monument. Local citizens and a broad coalition of local, state and national organizations have enthusiastically endorsed the proposal to celebrate, preserve and interpret Fort Monroe's history and natural resources. These organizations include: Citizens for a Fort Monroe National Park, Preservation Virginia, Fort Monroe National Park Foundation, the Fort Monroe Authority, the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, Civil War Preservation Trust, National Parks and Conservation Association, Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Likewise, the proposal enjoys strong bipartisan support from Virginia's elected officials at all levels. Democrat Sens. James Webb and Mark Warner; Republican Congressmen Scott Rigell, J. Randy Forbes and Rob Whitman; Democrat Congressman Bobby Scott; Gov. Bob McDonnell; and Hampton Mayor Molly Ward, among others, have each called for a national monument designation.

In the America's Great Outdoors Report, President Barack Obama has called for a "transparent and open approach to new national monument designations tailored to engaging local, state, and national interests."

Today, those interests are fully engaged and anxious to move ahead. We encourage the president to act swiftly on a national monument designation for Fort Monroe, so that it will continue to serve the nation as it spurs tourism, creates new jobs and conserves a vital part of the United States' and Chesapeake's natural and cultural landscape.

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About Charlie Stek

Charlie Stek is chairman of the Chesapeake Conservancy and a former senior staffer to U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes.

Read more articles by Charlie Stek

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When the Chesapeake restoration effort began, scientists and policymakers raised red flags on the problem: continued rapid growth could easily counter any potential gains from ecological improvements. Twenty-five years later, the clean-up effort lags and the topic of growth receives little serious engagement. Even those who express concern about the true costs of growth tend to accept it as unavoidable reality, treating growth as an unquestioned force of nature that must be “accommodated.” Questioning traditional concepts of growth is avoided among political leaders and environmental groups, and little is taught or discussed in the region’s academic institutions. This makes it critical to re-examine concepts of growth, or the acclaimed bay’s restoration — and quality of life in the region — may be jeopardized.

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