Fort McHenry enjoying a banner year; attendance up 27.5 percent during first half of 2012

California residents Caryn and Kurt Burris missed the Star-Spangled Sailabration festivities in June, but they learned all about the Stars and Stripes this month at Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine.

The Burrises toured the birthplace of the national anthem Thursday with their children, Wyatt, 11, and Shelby, 13, while visiting Baltimore to see Kurt's great aunt.

"It's an important part of history," Caryn Burris said. "We live in southern California, where everything is so new. It's nice to show the kids where it all started."

The Burrises are part of a wave of visitors that are producing a banner year for Fort McHenry, site of a key battle during the War of 1812 and the setting where Francis Scott Key in 1814 wrote the poem that would become the "Star-Spangled Banner."

According to park ranger Paul Plamann, the number of visitors during the first six months of 2012 increased 27.5 percent over the same period the year before, to 380,744 from 298,652.

About 65,000 people visited the fort between June 13 and June 19, during the weeklong celebration that kicked off three years of events marking the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 and Maryland's role in it. Fort McHenry was one of the prime viewing spots for air shows by the Blue Angels on June 16 and 17, and it drew about 30,000 people those two days.

The numbers are in line with projections made by National Park Service officials and volunteers, who prepared for the increased attendance by opening a larger visitor center in 2011, upgrading exhibits and making other improvements to the property.

"It's very gratifying," said Alan Walden, chairman emeritus of the Friends of Fort McHenry, a group that promotes and raises funds for the star-shaped fort. "McHenry is an iconic park, as the birthplace of the 'Star-Spangled Banner.' We were expecting a spike in attendance because of the Bicentennial. ... By the time the year ends, we'll probably see close to one million visitors, which is considerably more than the 650,000 a year we usually get."

Walden said he expects attendance at the fort to spike again in 2014, marking the bicentennial of the year Fort McHenry played a key role in the War of 1812.

"The biggest event will be the Defenders Day celebration of 2014, because that will be the actual 200th anniversary of the writing of the 'Star-Spangled Banner,'" Walden said.

Jill Feinberg, director of marketing and communications for Star-Spangled 200, the group planning the three-year celebration of the War of 1812 bicentennial, said her group is planning additional events around the state.

Starting in the spring of 2013, she said, Star-Spangled 200 will put on a roving, 18-month festival called the Chesapeake Campaign, and there will be a conference and exhibit at the U. S. Naval Academy in June.

For 2014, the group has identified Sept. 5 to 14 as dates for the Star Spangled Spectacular, a 10-day event that likely will include a return of tall ships to the city's harbor and other activities. She said planners were encouraged by the public response to the Sailabration event in June.

"We're thrilled," Feinberg said. "The press was fantastic. The partners were fantastic. We couldn't have asked for better weather. Al Roker was here from the Today Show to give us some national attention. The city just felt alive. It goes to show that Baltimore is capable and ready to host large scale events."

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