Bastions of Controversy | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Bastions of Controversy

The remains of Ft. Pitt may be buried once again, except for the protests of one local group



On a sunny September day, perhaps the most attractive thing about the remains of Ft. Pitt in Point State Park is the stand of tomato plants thriving in one corner near the park's entrance. Here, in this shady spot, the reconstructed fort wall begins to snake its way in a diamond-patterned trench near the 1759 ground level.



Otherwise this Music Bastion ... a protruding corner of the fort, which provided defenders with intersecting lines of fire ... is a string of broken lights and cracked pavement overshadowing the pale pink walls. The Flag Bastion, hidden away behind a city maintenance facility, is worse ... it was supposed to be a scenic outlook, but it's graffiti-encrusted, weed-infested, and smells like a toilet. Today in its center are several impromptu beds, apparently left by the homeless. The historical plaque at its base, at one end of a parking lot near the Boulevard of the Allies, is protected by a single orange cone.


To Nathan Kobuck and others in the month-old Ft. Pitt Preservation Society, all of this proves that the city, which maintains the park, and the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which owns the land, have done a lousy job of preserving this relic of pre-Revolutionary America. More importantly, the fort's new defenders say, government agencies shouldn't be allowed to bury the evidence.


"These are actual Ft. Pitt bricks," Kobuck says, standing next to the uninvited vegetables. "You come here and touch this, this is the Wailing Wall of Pittsburgh. You don't get older than this."

The current master plan to revamp the park at the Point runs counter to such sentiments. It is intended to make the park more user-friendly in 2006, not highlight this land's use nearly 250 years ago.


Lisa Schroeder, executive director of the Riverlife Task Force, acknowledges that the park "is the most beloved icon of our region [and] invaluable"; but besides being a National Historic Landmark, it's also the center of numerous city events, including the Three Rivers Arts Festival. Once the bastion is filled in, Schroeder says, expect to see the city-side of the park, nearest the Hilton Hotel, "outfitted and equipped for activities and events and casual recreation ... also as a space to extend Downtown ... with benches and greenery ... and hopefully concessions." Such activity will require utility hookups and "appropriate paving ... that won't damage the landscape of the park"


Nearly five years in the making, the plan calls for moving concerts and other events from the river-side of the park ... the larger lawn at the rivers' confluence, with the fountain at its tip ... to the city-side. After dozens of public meetings and the input of numerous city and state groups, led by the local Riverlife Task Force and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, the state DCNR now plans to fill in the partly reconstructed walls of the Music Bastion and place a stone outline above them, with historical interpretation. The work will begin "any time now," says DCNR spokesperson Christine Novak.


"The thing that they're not getting is that this is hallowed ground," says Kobuck about the planners. "Before there was Sept. 11 there was Sept. 15" ... Major James Grant's defeat in 1758, during which his men were killed here after attacking Ft. Pitt's predecessor, Ft. Duquesne, manned by the French. In 1763, a portion of Pontiac's Uprising also took place here, when Indian tribes tried to hold back the English push westward.


"The first American Army after the Revolution marches out of here" to put down a 1790s Indian uprising, Kobuck says. "Don't bury it. Make it something more. Show Pittsburgh's place in world history. This is the whole reason it's a state park. It's not Arts Festival State Park."


There's no reason to mourn the re-burial of history, says Barbara Franco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.


 Kobuck's group, she maintains, has "a misunderstanding of why anyone does archaeology." Its purpose, she says, is "to unearth features to provide information and understanding of history." She calls the Music Bastion a "salvage project" undertaken when the elevated road, a Parkway East exit leading to the Ft. Duquesne Bridge, was put through the center of the park. Not only is there much more to excavate, she says, but the reconstruction leaves visitors uncertain which parts are the original fort walls ... walls that would have been much higher, in any case.

"Even if it was all original material, it will be a good practice to cover that over" for future archaeologists to do a more thorough job.


"I guess there is the emotional value" to leaving it exposed, she allows.


Ft. Pitt Preservation Society member Mike Nixon knows a bit about that. He is a direct descendant of Maj. William Lea, an original member of Gen. Joseph Forbes' expedition to the Forks of the Ohio in the French and Indian War. "He helped build Ft. Pitt," Nixon says of Lea. "But that's just a coincidence" ... not the reason he is fighting to keep the Music Bastion uncovered.


Nixon, of the South Hills, is a historic preservation lawyer and consultant who defends Native American sacred sites and burial grounds. He believes this proposed burial is "an abuse of preservation protocols.


"The whole justification for burying the bastion ... is that most of the bricks are a reconstruction. ... But there's seven feet of stone and brick behind it that's original. That should be fully restored" instead.


"They want to put more flat ground for corndog vendors? That's appalling."


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