Fort Ontario, a strategic part of New York history

Destination NY

The border between the United States and Canada is one of the most peaceful on earth, but that wasn’t always the case. If generations of soldiers in New York State hadn’t held on to one strategic point, our lives today could be very different. We’re talking Fort Ontario, which overlooks the Oswego River.

Fort Ontario has been a fort since before New York was a state, and even before the United States was a country.

The Oswego River use to be a crucial route inland from the north, and control of the land was critical to the development of the nation.

“There have been battles fought here, there are veterans buried in the cemetery at the other side of this property that date back to the colonial period,” John Galoski said.

Some of the buildings in this old stone fort date back to well before the Civil War.  It stands on the site of three earlier fortifications from the French and Indian War, the Revolution and the War of 1812.  

Today, Fort Ontario is preserved by the State of New York as a shrine to the memory of those who served here.

“It’s really the most complex historic military site in the United States,” Paul Lear said. “Around here, you don’t check the clock when you wake up.  It’s ‘What war are we interpreting and researching today?’”

One weekend last summer brought Civil War life back, if only for a few days. Enactors from around the United States set up camp in and around the fort, sticking as close as they could to authentic dress and tools.

“These people are all everyday Americans from every walk of life. They’re all volunteers as well. They equip themselves, uniform themselves, and they dedicate time and effort and go to much expense to help interpret Civil War history,” Lear said.

Right now, re-enactments are on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic. That’s a little ironic because this is far from the first time an illness like COVID-19 has raised concerns on these hallowed grounds.  

“The biggest concern for Civil War soldiers anywhere was disease,” Tim Bills said. “So more soldiers died of disease than died in battle.”

The Fort served the country through World War II. Another chapter was written late in the war, when Fort Ontario housed the only Emergency Refugee Shelter in the United States. Nearly a thousand refugees from the Holocaust found a safe haven here, and many stayed after the war. Survivors joined the community to mark the 75th anniversary of their arrival in 2019.

For now, the grounds around Fort Ontario are open for recreation following social distancing guidelines. And fort managers are waiting to hear under what guidelines the fort itself might open this year.

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