Point Park find may be part of Fort Pitt
Preservation expert believes workers hit fort's casement
Friday, April 13, 2007
By Mark Belko, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Crews digging in Point State Park may have unearthed a true treasure.
While excavating in the park recently, workers discovered a piece of log that appears to be part of the original Fort Pitt, said Christina Novak, spokeswoman for the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the park's owner.
But members of one local group critical of the way the Downtown park's renovation work has been handled said the state initially did not know what a priceless find it had on its hands. They're worried it might not take adequate measures to document and protect such treasures.
The fort, dating to the earliest days of Pittsburgh's history, was a British stronghold during the French and Indian War and headquarters for the western theater during the American Revolutionary War.
One historic preservation consultant, Michael Nixon, believes workers struck one of the fort's casements. Some of the casements were used to store gunpowder and weapons, but this one would have been used for food and provisions. The discovery was made near the portal bridge on the city side of the park.
The casement would have been part of the fort's north wall, apparently the same wall unearthed during work in the park in 1953 and then buried again.
This particular casement, on the Allegheny River side of the fort, is significant because it would have included an underground passage to a sally port, which served as a secret entry and exit from the outpost.
Ms. Novak could not confirm that what was discovered during the digging was part of the casement. She said the state is awaiting a report and recommendation from Brooke Blades, an archaeologist working at Point State Park for consultant A.D. Marble & Co.
Richard Lang, a retired archaeologist, said the casement and the Music Bastion, which is being buried as part of the park's renovation, are the only two points that can be tied to the overall form of the original fort.
"What is left of the fort is a mosaic of pieces intermixed with 20th-century and 19th-century disturbances, so any piece is precious," he said. "It's a miracle that it survived to this point."
Mr. Nixon and Mr. Lang, founding members of SaveFortPitt.org, have criticized the $35 million park improvement project, with Mr. Nixon saying the state is converting "hallowed ground" into a "carnival site."
They were dissatisfied with the safeguards put in place by state officials to protect the Music Bastion during its filling and have complained that the commonwealth is not taking proper care in dealing with the park's historic artifacts.
Both argued that the recent discovery is a perfect example, claiming officials initially dismissed the find as non-18th-century because of its well-preserved condition and allowed crews to continue digging, damaging some of the fort's logs. Mr. Nixon said it was only after he and Mr. Lang approached the state that it decided to investigate further.
Mr. Lang said he saw three to four of the logs sticking out of the trench when he walked the site about two weeks ago. When he returned Friday, "a foot or two" of the logs had been cut off, he said.
That was unfortunate, he said, because he had warned the state last fall that there could be historic remains in the section of the park where the work was being done.
In fact, a section of the fort's north wall was excavated in 1953 as part of parkway work and then reburied. Mr. Nixon and Mr. Lang believe the same section was unearthed in the most recent digging.
Ms. Novak disputed their version of events, saying that Mr. Blades believes the damage to the logs occurred in the past, not with the recent work. She said the area where the discovery was made has been filled in while the state awaits recommendations from the archaeologist.
Mr. Lang, who was part of the 1964 excavation of the Music Bastion, is concerned about what steps the state will take to protect and document the latest Fort Pitt discovery. He said he was told Friday that the plan was to dig one foot to either side of the wall, figure out the orientation, and "let it go at that."
He believes extensive measurements should be taken, that there should be an investigation of the sally port, and that extreme care should be taken in filling in the site so it is well-preserved for future generations.
"We have the benefit of knowing what it is. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, quite literally," he said.
Ms. Novak said the state is awaiting recommendations from its archaeologist as to how to document the discovery and whether any further investigation is necessary.
"I don't think we've ruled anything out," she said.
She added, though, that the state must balance the historical significance of the park with community interests. She said there has been significant support for the improvements being done.
There are plans, she said, to do a better job in identifying the park's historic features and explaining its historic significance.
"We do respect that there is real historical significance to that area and we're acting on that," she said.