Saturday, September 13, 2008

Digging History at Bear Mountain

I’ve occasionally worked as a field archaeologist over the past twenty-odd years. It sounds fascinating, conjuring up images of Indiana Jones hunting down treasures, or Howard Carter opening Tut’s tomb. Digging into the past! Uncovering amazing artifacts and their stories! Lemme tell ya, it’s a lie. Archaeology is hot, hard, dirty work. The great finds are few and far between. On some jobs, there are almost no finds at all.

But sometimes, you get a bit lucky. I was reminded of this recently when my family and I visited Fort Montgomery State Historic Site on Route 9W, just north of Bear Mountain. Fort Montgomery, and Fort Clinton just to the south, were built on lofty river bluffs to defend the west end of Hudson River chain in 1777. Archaeologists excavated the remains of Fort Montgomery in the 1960s, and the site has recently been opened to the public (check out the restored grand battery, complete with real cannons!). If you follow the famous Appalachian Trail from right here in Sussex County northward, you’ll pass near this very spot: the Trail crosses the Hudson on the Bear Mountain Bridge before heading north into the Taconic Mountains and on to New England.

The site of Fort Clinton was built on over the centuries (most recently being the location of the Bear Mountain Trailside Museum and Zoo) and, unlike Fort Montgomery, was never archaeologically excavated. At least not until 1992, when the firm I have worked for was hired to do archaeology there prior to a construction project. For eager archaeologists, the possibility of digging in a Revolutionary War fort was like going to Disney World. Or at least, so we hoped.

The rich history of the site was examined because plans to construct sorely needed school bus and barrier-free parking for the Trailside Museum and Zoo were underway. This called for a careful archaeological study of the site, one of the most historically colorful locations in the region. A quick study demonstrated that there was good reason for concern about impact on archaeological resources. For decades, it was learned, park workmen had discovered Native American artifacts around the property in the course of digging. But this prominent river bluff's most famous chapter came long after the Native Americans were gone.

The Revolutionary War, July 1776: the British were determined to control the Hudson, and thus split and subdue their newly rebelling American colonies. In response, colonists constructed the second of the famous Hudson River chains, obstructing the river between Bear Mountain and Anthony's Nose. This great river chain would, with luck, stop the British Navy. Two forts were built above Popolopen Gorge to protect the chain and provide general defense: larger Fort Montgomery to the north, and the smaller Fort Clinton to the south. Fort Clinton consisted of a star-shaped redoubt and five buildings, including barracks. Fort Montgomery included barracks, powder magazines, officer’s quarters, and several batteries of cannons.

Both forts were well-defended from the riverside, but partly open from the rear. The Colonists assumed the British would, naturally, attack from the river, instead of trudging miles through the rough mountains to make a rear-attack. But that’s exactly what they did. And so the forts' careers were short: attacked by the British on October 6, 1777, they were captured following a bloody defeat of the American troops. The Redcoats held the forts until October 26, then retreated, burning and razing both to prevent their use by the colonists. They were never rebuilt.

Of course, the Hudson River chain WAS rebuilt—this time further north, between West Point and Constitution Island. This, the so-called “Great Chain,” was in place by April 1778, and kept the British Navy at bay. A portion of it can still be seen on Trophy Point at the U.S. Military Academy there.

The spectacular site of Fort Clinton was not, however, long ignored after the War of Independence. By the late 18th century, Eugene Lucett had established a dwelling, evidently amid the remains of Fort Clinton. In 1834 the wealthy Pell family (same family as Senator Pell, who created the Pell Grants program) of New York, who counted among their number a former New York mayor, purchased the property. The Pells constructed a country estate on the bluff, erasing any visible traces or ruins of the old Revolutionary War redoubt, and replacing them with landscaped grounds. In 1889, an even bigger change was in the wind: a proposed railroad bridge from the Pell property, across the river to Anthony's Nose. Going bankrupt during construction, the bridge scheme was nevertheless a harbinger of things to come. The Pell Mansion itself burned in 1910, by which time it had sunk to the lowly status of boarding house.

By 1920, the fortunes of the area seemed anchored with then-newly created Bear Mountain Park. In 1923, the former Pell estate finally did see a bridge built through it. Bear Mountain Bridge (now a National Engineering Landmark), opened in 1924, cut through the heart of the old fort / estate area atop the bluff, and the massive construction associated with it further mottled and complicated an already much-used and much-altered site. Indeed, our excavation site was smack in the middle of what was the staging area for construction of the bridge.

In 1927, the site was chosen as the location for a park museum and zoo, and by 1936 the present handsome complex of rustic stone buildings and winding paths and overlooks had been constructed. Today, the Historical Museum contains a fascinating array of historical exhibits. To its rear is the site of Fort Clinton's Grand Battery (artillery emplacement), with a breathtaking view of the Hudson.

Fort Clinton's Grand Battery, however, was long gone. The sole surviving trace of the fort, and that having been extensively restored in the 1930's, was the West Redoubt, an outer defensive work, which can still be visited. Still, the array of change on the site is bewildering. Construction of Fort Clinton in 1776-77 erased the bluff's prehistoric appearance; construction of the Pell estate in 1834 erased Fort Clinton's ruins; and now the trailside museum and zoo had erased any visible trace of the Pell estate. Any evidence of the site's history was now buried.

Thus when plans for the school bus and barrier-free parking area were drawn, park officials were concerned that the necessary earth removal might destroy important archaeological data. A careful study of 18th century maps revealed that construction would destroy an area directly within the original 1776 fort. This was potentially exciting, as it was near the site of a Revolutionary War barracks. Fort Montgomery had yielded major archaeological finds, including a complete 18th century hearth. Would Fort Clinton yield the same?

Sheffield Archaeological Consultants of Butler, NJ, was hired to do the Fort Clinton study. I was part of the field archaeology team, along with my fellow Vernonite Rick Patterson. Preliminary archaeological testing determined that, indeed, there were two sensitive areas. One was on the lawn south of the Bear Mountain Bridge tollbooths, and yielded 18th century artifacts. The other was a larger site immediately west that showed signs of Native American occupation. Both sites were rapidly heading for the bulldozer.


In visiting Fort Montgomery recently, I recalled my days in 1992 excavating at Fort Clinton across Popolopen gorge. Looking through my files, I found a journal I had written at the time, recording our efforts:

“ Eleven o'clock and hot as blazes. Two hours of hard scraping and digging and I'm only six inches into my one-meter excavation. The roar of traffic from the Bear Mountain Bridge is incessant. A few curious people stop and gaze at our work, but only a handful ask questions. Our principal archaeologist politely answers their questions. Now off in the distance, the occasional "boom-boom, boom-boom" sounds up north, through the steamy summer air. Not Rip Van Winkle's mysterious crew playing ninepins -- rather, it must be gunnery practice time up at West Point. Now and then a helicopter gunship skims the treetops above us -- another sign that America's future defenders are training nearby. How many people know how much blood was spilled right here to help found a Nation?”

A few days later: “Our first shovel tests in this area turned up tiny chert flakes galore, and the tip of a tiny prehistoric point, maybe from an arrow -- the Native Americans were here for sure. So far, all I'm finding in this black, gritty dirt under the grass a short spit from the highway is trash -- bottle caps, bits of rubber, old macadam -- the detritus of 20th century highway culture. And the pine tree two feet away has a root system roughly as large and complex as the New York Subway system. It's not making my life a joy right now. Out on the lawn, in the sun, other units are digging in the 18th century area. Right now they're trying to decide if the stones they came down upon are natural, or -- hopefully -- the remains of a Revolutionary War foundation.”

Later still: “We're rapidly turning the area into a kind of performance art checkerboard -- our neat square holes separated by untouched areas of lawn or woods. All the dirt, carefully scraped by trowel, goes through the sifter to see what else may turn up. Our sifter pile is now becoming a small mountain; the back-breaking work is relieved by jokes, like our name for the pile: Mount Oswf, an acronym for what we imagine the American soldiers' last words here were as the British Redcoats breached the bastion (use your imagination). The 18th century site keeps on yielding tantalizing clues -- old wine bottle glass, windowpane glass, and bricks. The "foundation" they came down upon seems to be just rocks -- but they're checking to be sure. Our prehistoric site keeps on coughing up a steady supply of flakes and debitage (waste chert from the making of stone tools), and the occasional thriller, like a well-made point or a musket ball.”

After the job is done:” Having endured heat, humidity, roots, mosquitoes, one drenching thunderstorm that ended work, and one New York passerby who asked, in all seriousness, if New Jersey wasn't just "all swamps and highways," we're almost done. Our prehistoric site never quite answered our highest hopes, but still produced a slew of artifacts. The 18th century site was a disappointment: historic artifacts, yes, but in no order of depth -- newer stuff deep down, old stuff near the surface. And no barracks foundation at all. Same with the Indian site -- bricks side by side with Indian material. Mostly we found bedrock within a few feet. The pageant of changes that had occurred on this spot had definitely caused one thing: it had totally jumbled the archaeological remains. Leaving, we're satisfied with our work, but still can't help but wonder: if only . . . . . But you can't find what isn't there.”

Our dig took place over several weeks, and involved the excavation of numerous meter-square units. We removed almost 300 cubic feet of earth (roughly eight tons), every ounce of it troweled out by hand and sifted through quarter-inch mesh. It revealed much more about the history of the site-or at least, how disturbed it had become by later activity. Excavation of the 18th century site yielded considerable 18th century material: bricks, window glass, bottle glass, ceramics, and a fragment of a handsome Rhenishware tankard (once used by a well-to-do officer to sip fine ales, and lost in the ensuing battle and flames? The mind can only wonder). Unfortunately, the material was jumbled in such a way that indicated it had probably been dumped here from elsewhere, long-ago landfill, perhaps from when the Pells cleared away and leveled the old Revolutionary earthworks to make their lawns and gardens. No trace of the barracks was discovered.

The Prehistoric site nearby proved surprisingly fruitful. Over 1,400 prehistoric artifacts were excavated, including tiny chert flakes, stone tools, arrow and spear points, scrapers, hammerstones, pottery, a glass trade bead, and two musket balls-relics of the Revolutionary War battle which came long after the last Native Americans had camped here. The archaeological team concluded that the site had been occupied for brief periods between 3,000 and 1,000 B.C., and again from 1,000 to 1750 A.D., by Native Americans who came there to make or repair stone tools using nearby chert deposits -- an ancient tool workshop.

In spite of the disturbed conditions, the archaeology was valuable. Edward J. Lenik, Principal Investigator for Sheffield Archaeological Consultants, summed up the dig at Fort Clinton at the time: "Archaeology has literally revealed history beneath our feet. For example, although the presence of Native American groups in the general area has long been known, we now know the exact spot at which they stopped along their trail, when they paused here, and what they did here. The archaeological investigations have determined the overlays of history -- Indian, Colonial, and 20th century -- an ever-changing cultural landscape."

The archaeology determined that neither site required further research, and with archaeology completed the entire area was soon obliterated by heavy machinery and construction. Many hikers and sightseers pass this spot all day long. They will, perhaps, appreciate the bus and barrier-free parking area by the Bear Mountain Bridge tollbooths. But few will ever guess at the long cavalcade of history this spot has seen.

Postscript from my journal: “A year later, and a brief drive-by of the Fort Clinton site we dug is a stunner. It's gone. The gently sloping lawn where the 18th century site was, and the small patch of woods where we dug the prehistoric site, have vanished, swept away by bulldozers. New curbs, new roads, new paving. New barrier-free and school bus access, and a far safer exit onto the highway were all long overdue. We're not sad -- our job is to dig, and get the information out of the ground so that other plans can proceed. We dig in the shadow of change and obliteration. But we can't help but wonder: what about all the other places that never see an archaeologist before the bulldozer? What unimaginable history is lost there?”

(Ron Dupont can be reached at