Hold the Fort; Maryland: From its perch above the Potomac, Fort Frederick offers walls of history, plus access to fishing, hiking and biking in surrounding park lands.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Four major wars have been fought on American soil. The first protected early Colonists from the depredations of the French, the second and third freed them forever from the British yoke and the fourth determined whether America would be one nation or two. Fort Frederick, 18 miles west of Hagerstown, in Washington County, served in all but the third (the War of 1812).

Built in 1756 by the Colony of Maryland to protect its English settlers from French soldiers and their Native American allies, the fort today sits atop a bluff overlooking the Potomac River, in Fort Frederick State Park. There, along the base of the Appalachian Mountains in the Cumberland Valley, it stakes its claim to being the best-preserved Colonial fort in the nation -- the sole survivor of a score of 18th-century fortifications built along the Potomac and its tributaries.

A legacy of war

The mid-18th century was a period of opportunity and conflict for the coastal English settlements that stretched from Maine to Georgia. Movement was gradually westward toward the agricultural lands of the Ohio Valley, and toward inevitable collision with the French who were moving into the valley from Canada. The French and British both enlisted Native Americans as allies, and the conflict between them, from 1756 to 1763, became known as the French and Indian War. English settlers in Western Maryland were especially vulnerable to attacks by Native Americans.

Horatio Sharpe, Maryland's proprietary governor from 1753 to 1769, persuaded the state legislature to build Fort Frederick, funded in part by taxes on unmarried men, Roman Catholics (who had to pay double), spirits and billiard tables. Sharpe then raised a force of 500 to man it, noting that "Our Barracks are made for the Reception & Accomodation of 200 men but on Occasion there will be room for twice that number."

Named for Frederick Calvert, the sixth Lord Baltimore, the fort served as a staging area in 1758 for troops and supplies during the campaign to recapture Fort Duquesne (in present-day Pittsburgh) from the French. In 1758, a smallpox epidemic killed 600 at the fort, which five years later became a haven for 700 refugees fleeing the Indians -- some of whom later became allies.

British and Hessian prisoners were housed inside the fort's walls during the Revolutionary War. Union troops garrisoned at Fort Frederick to protect the C&O; Canal and B&O; Railroad during the Civil War skirmished sporadically with rebels who slipped across the Potomac.

For many years following its military service, Fort Frederick was either abandoned or farmed privately, its stone walls -- built to withstand cannon fire -- used by one enterprising farmer as a livestock pen. The state of Maryland acquired it in 1922, and the walls -- the majority of which are original -- were restored and stabilized by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. In 1974, the Fort became a National Historic Landmark.

In and around the fort

Start your visit at the Visitor Center, where you'll see a display of uniforms from the fort's three wars. See the 16-minute film on the construction and history of the fort, then inspect the impressive array of Native American artifacts unearthed in Washington County -- bearing in mind that what you see is but a third of the park's collection.

From the Visitor Center, it's a short hike to the fort (though parking is available there also). It remains a simple structure, a walled rectangle of stone, with arrowhead-shaped bastions that once held cannon gun decks protruding from each corner.

The wooden barracks have been reconstructed and are adorned with the period clothing and personal affects of enlisted men and their officers who would have served there during the French and Indian War. Plans are afoot to rebuild the officer's quarters (whose original foundation stones are visible), the powder magazine, gun decks and the catwalks that once accommodated sentries and, during attacks against the fort, musket-wielding defenders. The quarters are small, as were the standard British weekly rations for each man: seven pounds of flour and beef or pork and a pint of rice, with daily rum rations mitigating the paltry portions.

Just outside the fort are several other buildings. Captain Wort's Sutler Shop has tasteful wares, including Williamsburg pottery, pewter items, period children's games and some camping supplies. Snacks, sodas and ice cream are also served. (Unruly children may be placed in the stocks in front of the shop.) Adjacent are reproductions of a carriage house, barn and blacksmith shop, also built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC museum there explains the restoration of the fort and is replete with 1700s-era artifacts excavated during the 1930s reconstruction.

The rest of the park

Outside the fort's walls, the park's 560 acres offer plenty to do. The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal runs through the south side of the park and parallels the Potomac River for nearly 185 miles, from Georgetown to Cumberland. Construction began on the canal in 1828, and it soon became the successor to the hazardous commerce on the Potomac itself, where rocks, waterfalls, floods and other dangers claimed cargo, boats and even boatmen. The canal towpath allowed mules to pull boats laden with cargo such as tobacco, coal and furs along Potomac ports. Not until 1850 did the canal reach its terminus at Cumberland, and it managed to survive until 1924, when massive floods ensured its doom. The canal became a National Park in 1971.

Big Pool, a 1.5-mile natural depression on the canal that was a winter home for canal boats, makes for terrific stream-fed fishing. It's also the place to boat, either in your own (electric motors only, no launch fees) or in canoes or rowboats rented at the Park ($4 an hour; $20 a day). There is no access to the Potomac.

The wetland just below Beaver Pond, on the river side of the canal, is a bird watcher's haven, inhabited by wood ducks, canvasbacks, osprey, blue herons and the occasional bald eagle (the beavers, having decimated the area, have moved on). Today the canal towpath is a favorite ground for hiking, biking and cycling. As we hiked westward, train whistles echoed through the river valley -- a poignant reminder that trains moving goods cheaply to and from the Ohio Valley had much to do with the canal's demise.

Just below the canal, along the Potomac River, is an unimproved campground (its flood plain location precludes power or sewer), whose 28 individual sites offer parking pads and grills (latrines are conveniently located). Four sites for organized youth groups are also available.

A three-mile hiking trail in the park, the Plantation Trail, is graced by trees native not to the Appalachians but to the Piedmont and Eastern Shore regions, thanks to a Civilian Conservation Corps experiment in the 1930s that introduced sweetgums and several varieties of pines. Another hiking option is the new, paved Western Maryland Rail Trail, whose south end starts at the route 56 exit on Interstate 70, a mile from the park. This trail, which opened in April, runs 10 miles to Hancock, and phase-two construction starting next year will extend it another 13 miles west.

A quarter-mile east of the fort is a picnic area with swings set in a wooded glen.

Between April and November, the park plans events that underscore the role the fort has played in American history. All will feature 18th-century artisans, craft makers and historical encampments. Beginning in April, the Market Fair and Rifle Frolic re-creates a typical 18th-century market, with a wide range of artisans and sutlers as well as a period firearms competition. The year's final event, the Blackpowder Shoot in November, centers on "round ball" competitive shooting, using muzzle-loading, black-powder weapons.

Hagerstown, the county seat, was founded in 1762 and is rich in Maryland history. During the Civil War, it had the misfortune to lie along the route used by Gen. Robert E. Lee to and from the battles of Antietam and Gettysburg.

In July 1864, Confederate troops threatened to burn Hagerstown unless a ransom of $200,000 was paid -- though legend says a clerk's error reduced the amount to $20,000. The city paid and escaped destruction (though neighboring Chambersburg, Pa., did not fare as well at the hands of the rebels, who burned the town when it failed to pay up). A walking tour of Hagerstown's Civil War, consisting of about 20 significant sites, brings that period to life.

AN IDEAL DAY

9 a.m.: Spend the morning on the Civil War walking tour in Hagerstown, then drive to the Fort Frederick State Park. Campers, drop a fishing pole into Big Pool and catch your dinner like true frontier folk, or just spend the morning canoeing.

Noon: Pack a lunch and hike the Plantation Trail. At the picnic area, eat the big lunch you've earned from such strenuous morning activities.

1:30 p.m.: Stop by the Visitor Center for an orientation to Fort Frederick. Inspect uniforms, weapons and artifacts from the French and Indian War. If you're lucky, you'll encounter Dave Moore, the park's interpreter/naturalist whose specialty is staging historically accurate French and Indian War re-enactments.

2 p.m.: Tour the fort and its enclosures. Imagine living with a bunch of guys in such small quarters for an entire winter. Visit the adjacent buildings for a better idea of what frontier life must have been like in the 18th century.

3:30 p.m.: Visit Captain Wort's for a soda or an ice cream. Threaten the kids with the stocks just outside if they don't behave. Treat them to a souvenir if they do.

4 p.m.: Skip stones along the Potomac River. Hike north along the C&O; Canal, along Big Pool and Beaver Pond, or bird-watch at the pond. Watch the sun set over the river.

6 p.m.: Retire to your B&B; or tent, as appropriate, for a civilized cocktail hour. Toast the smallpox vaccine.

7 p.m.: Campers: Fire up your grills for dinner and cook the fish you caught this morning in Big Pool. Noncampers: Follow the dining recommendation of your hosts. As you dine, think of the puny, often contaminated rations available to those who manned Fort Frederick. Rejoice that you don't have to live on the frontier as they did.

-- Charles W. Mitchell

WHEN YOU GO ...

Getting there: A picturesque 90-minute drive west from Baltimore, Fort Frederick State Park is reached via Interstate 70 west and then south on Maryland Route 56 toward Big Pool (Exit 12 off I-70). The I-70 welcome center (at mile marker 39) has helpful staff and lots of information on Maryland, divided by region, and is worth a stop on your way to the park.

Bed & Breakfasts: Rates are for doubles.

* Breezee Hill Farm: 12140 St. Paul Road, Clear Spring, Md. 21722; 301-842-2608; suite with whirlpool, modern house on a working farm ($100).

* Wildflowers: 12739 Cohill Road, Clear Spring, Md. 21722; 301-842-1191; three rooms in modern house on a small organic farm ($80).

* Beaver Creek House, 20432 Beaver Creek Road, Hagers-town, Md. 21740; 301-797-4764 or 888-942-9966; www.bbonline .com/md/beavercreek; five rooms in a turn-of-the-century Victorian house at the foot of South Mountain ($95).

* Lewrene Farm, 9738 Downsville Pike, Hagerstown, Md. 21740; 301-582-1735; six rooms, colonial-style house on a working farm ($62-$105).

* Sunday's B&B;, 39 Broadway, Hagerstown, Md. 21740; 800-221-4828; www.sundaysbnb .com; four rooms (one a suite with whirlpool) in a Queen Anne Victorian ($65-$145).

* Wingrove Manor, 635 Oak Hill Ave., Hagerstown, Md. 21740; 301-733-6328; five rooms in a large Victorian with columned porch ($85-$125).

Park events: All events feature 18th-century artisans, blacksmiths, craft makers, sutlers, and historical encampments. Most are free, though several carry a small service charge.

* Market Fair and Rifle Frolic, April 22-25 (9 a.m.-6 p.m.): An 18th-century "market," with a wide range of artisans and sutlers. There is also a period firearms competition featuring muskets, rifles and flintlocks. Anyone can enter, but you must bring your own weapon and dress in period attire.

* French and Indian Muster, May 29-30 (10 a.m.-4 p.m.): 18th-century military units are "mustered in" for duty, demonstrate frontier and tactical skills, and cope with the rigors of life during the French and Indian War.

* Military Field Days, July 10-11 (10 a.m.-4 p.m.): Troops from the French and Indian, Revolutionary and Civil wars put on tactical demonstrations and encampments.

* BAR Grand Encampment, Aug. 20-22 (10 a.m.-4 p.m.): The 500 re-enactors representing American and European troops who fought in the American Revolution make this event one of the largest of its kind in the nation.

* Governor's Invitational Firelock Match, Sept. 25-26 (12:30 p.m.-5 p.m.): The 34th annual competition between 18th-century military units, featuring musket, pistol and cooking contests; one of the longest-running such events in the nation.

* Ghost Walk, Oct. 29 (7 p.m.-8:30 p.m.): A spooky Halloween stroll through Fort Frederick's past -- be prepared for victims of the 1758 smallpox epidemic, Native American attacks and Confederate patrols on this guided walk through the woods and into the fort. Arrive early, as this event is very popular.

* Blackpowder Shoot, Nov. 6-7 (9 a.m.-4 p.m.): "Round ball" competitive shooting, using any muzzle-loading black-powder weapon. Period attire not required but highly recommended.

Nearby: Indian Springs Wildlife Area, James Buchanan Birthplace, Washington Monument State Park, Harpers Ferry National Park, Gettysburg and Antietam national battlefields (which include annual re-enactments), White Tail Ski Resort.

Information

* Fort Frederick State Park: 111000 Fort Frederick Road, Big Pool, Md. 21711; 301-842-2155. Information on all Maryland state parks can be found at the state's Department of Natural Resources Web site: www.dnr.state .md.us.

* Hagerstown: Washington County Convention & Visitor's Bureau, Elizabeth Hager Center, 16 Public Square, Hagers-town, Md. 21740; 888-257-2600; www.marylandmemories.org.

-- Charles W. Mitchell

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