Bring home your local Olympians-including Michael Phelps-and what could be more patriotic than to parade them toward historic Fort McHenry, birthplace of the national anthem?

Ten thousand people turned out at Fort McHenry for the "Star-Spangled Salute" to Phelps and other athletes in October. Another 575,000 visit throughout the year. On bike, on foot, by car, bus and boat, Americans and international tourists are drawn to Fort McHenry less for its military significance than for its compelling patriotic symbolism.

Yet it's not uncommon to find many visitors with their backs to the main attraction.

Instead, they face the water.

The Fort McHenry National Park and Historic Shrine, a member of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, is wrapped in water. It juts into the Patapsco River just south of Baltimore, at the end of a peninsula that shelters both the Inner Harbor and Fells Point.

From atop the fort's walls or on the path at the edge of its grounds, people often pause for a long stare toward the river. They are drawn to the sight despite the fact that nothing but their imaginations could possibly conjure up the setting of Sept. 13, 1814, when the British arrived to invade Baltimore.

"Clearly, everything about this area has changed, except for the water itself," said Gay Vietzke, superintendent of Fort McHenry for the National Park Service.

The changes are consistent, though, with everything that early U.S. citizens knew about the advantages of life along the Bay.

Visitors today see industry on the opposite shore, work boats crossing paths with tour boats, and the Francis Scott Key Bridge spanning the river's girth as it flows toward the Bay. In 1814, this was the final stretch of a rural landscape on the nautical approach to Baltimore.

At the time, Baltimore was the third largest city in the nation. Its relationship to the Bay propelled its success. The sheltered harbor, adjacent to productive farms, was an ideal location for shipping. Baltimore- built schooners, which evolved from vessels that sailed the Bay's shallow waters, were famous for their speed. They played an important role in Baltimore's commercial boom and made their mark at war, too.

But when the War of 1812 began, shipbuilding and commerce had not yet spilled onto the river's more distant shores. Activity centered on Fell's Point and the Inner Harbor, while Fort McHenry guarded the bucolic watery highway that stood at its feet.

"The fort is here because water was so important," Vietzke said. "It was the economic baseline for Baltimore."

Fort McHenry was built between 1780 and 1800 to replace the more modest Fort Whetstone, erected during the Revolution. A French engineer designed Fort McHenry as a five-pointed star. Each narrow point could be well-defended by a small group of soldiers and offered a good view of their comrades on either side.

The view today is still commanding, without the terror of shells exploding overhead. Visitors can walk the historic "ramparts," (walls, to the rest of us), wind through brick walkways and cross the grassy expanse surrounding the fort.

The story of The Star-Spangled Banner remains the top draw, but Vietzke said the fort has an important secondary appeal-relaxation.

"This is open space in a densely developed area," Vietzke said. "So we also want you to enjoy having picnics here, or flying a kite and walking your dog. You'll still understand that this is a special place."

Olympians aside, Vietzke said most days at Fort McHenry are relatively quiet and contemplative. So much that she deliberately injects some bustle and noise. The annual September anniversary of the British bombardment is especially popular.

"We have lots of events that bring the life back, with living history, fife and drums, and modern military units that we invite to participate in ceremonies," Vietzke said.

Inside the fort walls lie the tidy brick barracks where soldiers were housed, with detailed exhibits that explain the battle for Baltimore and the experience of its soldiers.

Every morning, visitors can help raise the modern star-spangled banner on the towering white flag pole, styled after a ship's mast. If the weather conditions are right, it might be a full-size reproduction of the original.

But the fort has a story beyond that battle and its famous flag. During the Civil War, Fort McHenry trained its own guns on Baltimore to discourage civil unrest. It also housed military and political prisoners of war- southern sympathizers who included Baltimore's mayor and city council members.

During World War I, the fort was temporarily expanded into an enormous hospital for wounded soldiers. Their injuries were severe, and many techniques for plastic and cranial surgery were developed here.

Fort McHenry saw action just once in its history-for 25 hours. But that single conflict produced both a national anthem and a depiction of U.S. spirit that has endured for generations.

Ironically, it is the battle and not the war that stays in Americans' collective memory. The War of 1812 is sandwiched between the Revolution and the Civil War, which makes for tough competition. Both resound with the theme of freedom. Americans know less about the War of 1812 because the reasons we fought it- and the outcome-don't provide a neat sound bite.

The War of 1812 was waged against Britain because of conflicts involving trade issues, westward expansion and respect for our newly formed nation. But the United States was deeply divided over declaring war. New England basically refused to participate.

There was also no clear "winner." Both sides agreed to return to conditions as they existed before the war began. The only clear losers were the native people in the Midwest. Promises made to them during the course of the war were cast aside in the treaty.

Yet our faded national memory doesn't mean that the War of 1812 was fought lightly or without consequence. The Chesapeake region was an important scene of action. Some historians describe the Bay as an "English pond" ruled by Britain's highly superior navy. British troops roamed the water, boarded U.S. ships and burned coastal towns before returning to their impregnable ships.

In August of 1814, the British turned their sights on Washington, D.C. Americans were stunned as soldiers made their way upriver and across the countryside, and reduced the White House, Capitol and other government buildings to ashes.

Then they turned toward Baltimore.

Citizens fled as the British fleet sailed toward the Patapsco River. Thousands of soldiers and citizen militia from Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia poured into the city. Defenses were built to the east to fend off a land attack. Boats were sunk in the mouth of the harbor to deter enemy ships. Fort McHenry prepared.

The previous year, the fort's commander, Maj. George Armistead wanted "a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty seeing it from a distance." He hired Mary Young Pickersgill, a Baltimore business woman who made flags for ships on the Chesapeake.

Pickersgill and her stitching team borrowed space from a local brewery to work on the project. They finished in six weeks, producing a flag that measured 42 feet across. Each star was two feet wide.

The battle began at dawn on Sept. 13 and lasted until 7 a.m. the next morning. The British hurled between 1,500 and 1,800 shells and rockets at the fort, but could not progress toward Baltimore. As their ships retreated, the enormous flag was raised above the fort.

Downriver, a U.S. lawyer named Francis Scott Key had spent a nervous night watching the battle from a neutral ship. When he saw the flag's colors through the "clouds of battle," he was so moved by the sight that he began to write a poem that reflected the moment. It was published almost immediately under the title, "Defence of Fort McHenry." Set to a popular tune, the poem became lyrics that caught on quickly.

"It was the text message of the day," Vietzke said.

In 1931, under the title "The Star- Spangled Banner," it became the national anthem.

Fort McHenry holds the stage for this historic event, but not the original flag nor Key's handwritten manuscript. The flag, held by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., is undergoing a multi-year conservation effort and will be displayed in a new exhibit. Key's original poem is at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore.

Fort McHenry is expecting big things in the next few years. The 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 arrives soon. And, in April, Congress approved the creation of The Star- Spangled Banner National Historic Trail. The trail will create a network of sites that highlight the Chesapeake's role in the War of 1812, from Tangier Island in Virginia, through Southern Maryland, into Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, and north to Havre de Grace.

The events and publicity related to these efforts will spark a new surge of interest the War of 1812 and especially in Fort McHenry. Attendance may jump by an additional 100,000 visitors each year.

Those guests will soon be greeted by a larger, updated visitor center, which is scheduled to replace the current 1960s-era facility by 2010. The new center will feature an immersion-theater experience of the battle and a dramatic view of the fort. It will also provide improved classroom space.

"We want the new exhibits and film to provide enough information for visitors to truly engage with the history of Fort McHenry, and to encourage visitors to seek out and visit other places throughout the Chesapeake region that tell other pieces of the story of the War of 1812 and the creation of the Star-Spangled Banner," Vietzke said.

Given these changes and the upcoming attention to the War of 1812, a two-part visit to Fort McHenry might be best. Once to enjoy some lively re-creations of fort life, and once to soak up some quiet time on the waterfront.

Fort McHenry National Monument & Historic Shrine

The grounds at Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine are open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. The fort and visitor center are open 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. daily, except for Thanksgiving Day, Dec. 25 and Jan. 1, when they are closed.

  • Admission to the historic area of the park is $7/ages 16+; children younger than 15 are free. This fee provides the visitor with a seven-day entrance permit to Fort McHenry. There is no fee to walk or picnic on the grounds outside the fort.
  • Bird walks are scheduled 8 a.m. to noon Nov. 29, Dec. 3 and Dec. 20 along the Fort McHenry wetlands. Meet outside the Visitor Center. Walks are cancelled for inclement weather. Bring binoculars; dress for the weather; and prepare for insects. Bird walks are free; normal fees apply for the historic area.

Directions:

The park is 3 miles southeast of the Baltimore Inner Harbor, just off Interstate 95. Follow the brown Fort McHenry directional signs along all major routes to the park.

From I-95 northbound or southbound, take Exit 55 Key Highway and follow Fort McHenry signs on Key Highway to Lawrence Street. Turn left on Lawrence Street and then left on Fort Avenue. Proceed 1 mile to the park.

From the Inner Harbor, take Light Street south to Key Highway. Turn left and follow the Fort McHenry signs to Lawrence Street. Turn right on Lawrence Street and then left on Fort Avenue to the park.

Water transportation is provided to Fort McHenry via water taxi from the Inner Harbor, spring through fall. The schedule varies by season. Call ahead for the latest schedule at 410- 563-3901 or 800-658-8947.

For details about the fort or its grounds, call 410-962-4290 or visit www.nps.gov/fomc/. For information about other sites in the Chesapeake Gateways Network, visit www.baygateways.net