An Unmarked Fort

Salem’s Winter Island has been the focus of a lot of attention this year, with the unveiling of a new master plan this summer and a proposed wind turbine on the table.  But it has always been a busy place, with a history of potteries, fishing and shipbuilding, executions and recreation, and above all, military installations.  The aerial photograph below was taken in 1955, at the peak of operations of the Coast Guard Air Station on Winter Island.

CGAS Salem, 1955, from the really neat site Abandoned & Little Known Airfields by Paul Freeman.

And a century before, in what looks like (and was) a completely different world, we have a 1858 lithograph of “Camp Banks”, an encampment of the Second Division of the Massachusetts Volunteer Militia on Winter Island just before the Civil War.

"Encampment of the 2d Div. of M.V.M. on Winter Island, Salem Harbor/Camp Banks", print by J. Bachelder, NY (1858)

Neither image indicates the most important, and long-lasting, military installation on Winter Island:  Fort Pickering.  This fort was established in the mid-seventeenth century as Fort William, renamed Fort Anne after 1703, and “Fort #2” by Patriot forces during the Revolutionary War.  After the Revolution, the Fort was named Fort Pickering after Timothy Pickering, Salem native and Cabinet member in both the Washington and Adams administrations.  It was rebuilt in several phases in the nineteenth century, and apparently tripled in size during the Civil War, when is was known as the Salem Barracks.  The Fort occupies the point in the bottom right-hand corner of the aerial photograph below, anchored by its lighthouse, Fort Pickering Light (1871).

After Air Station Salem closed in 1970, the Federal government transferred Winter Island to the City of Salem, which has maintained it as a recreational park.  The remaining Federal buildings have deteriorated considerably since that time, including those of Fort Pickering.  For the most part, Winter Island is maintained as a campsite, though this past summer camping was not allowed within the perimeter of the Fort.  I was happy to see that the new master plan called for improved signage and interpretive trails around the Island, as I think that this is a particularly pressing problem for the Fort site.  The succession of photographs below illustrate the problem:  the brass plaques that were once attached to stones around the Fort were apparently stolen, and replaced with markers that have not stood the test of time.

The entrance to the Fort:

Inside the perimeter of the Fort:

The Lighthouse:

Within the remnant walls of Fort Pickering, there is one plaque in excellent condition, though you have to really want to find it.  Attached to a gated powder magazine is a small brass plate In Memory of Fallen Special Forces Soldiers, its single permanence in striking contrast to the temporary rainwashed markers all around the fort.

I am glad that the proposed plan calls not only for improved signage, but also more formal interpretation of this important site as the historical record presents a confusing picture.  Even though there is firm evidence of its foundation in the mid- seventeenth century it was rebuilt so often in the succeeding centuries (including “demolition” phases) that we have to wonder what we are really looking at when we walk around the old fort today. Did the major expansions of 1794 and 1863 wipe out the remnants of the seventeenth century?  Hand-drawn pictures (below) from the charming Pictorial Fieldbook of the War of 1812 by Benson Lossing (1869), as well as literary and visual sources from the era of the Spanish-American War (the last time the fort was manned) testify to the existence of embankments and buildings that did not survive the twentieth century.  What exactly is left?  Recent archeological surveys of the site can best answer that question, and, when combined with the historical record, should tell a story that needs to be told.

In the clear: the remains of the Fort between the Wars

It is difficult not to compare the present state of Fort Pickering with a fellow “First System” fort of similar vintage: the better-preserved and -interpreted Fort Sewall in Marblehead.  As the master plan for Winter Island gets implemented in the coming years, perhaps this neighboring fort can serve as a model.

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