Dispute Rages at Site of Old Fortress | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Dispute Rages at Site of Old Fortress 

Plan to construct new military facility wrapped up in controversy

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Controversy continues to swirl around plans to construct a brand new military fortress alongside the current one. Backers insist that the old facility, Fort Duquesne, is too small, and that the hoped-for new fort will be a "state-of-the-art facility" that will help send a message that Pittsburgh is embracing the future. Critics counter, meanwhile, that the facility will be little more than a white elephant -- with any luck, the first and last one built between the Forks of the Ohio.

Slated to encompass more than two acres within its walls, the new fortress will be among the largest British fortresses on the continent. Naming rights for the structure, called "Fort Pitt," have already been secured, and backers say it will attract new residents, as well as create such cutting-edge 18th-century jobs as farrier, wheelwright and stable boy.

Besides, asks Hugh H. Brackenridge, a prominent local booster, "Can you imagine just leaving all that land vacant -- just a big, grassy plot where three rivers meet? Future generations would wonder what we could possibly have been thinking."

Considerable progress has been made on the fort already. Facility planners are promising that the structure will be designed according to green principles. Much of the fort will be constructed using renewable materials, for example. "We'll be using a lot of wood," says General John Stanwix, who is presiding over construction.

Materials used throughout the project will be of the highest quality. Even a humble structure, like a simple blockhouse, could last as long as 20 or 30 years, Stanwix predicts -- with the rest of the complex destined to survive far longer.

The local design community has considerable praise for the new structure, in part because it incorporates some of the elements of the old fort. Like Fort Duquesne, the new building will feature a number of bastions and palisades. "It wryly comments on the site's history without merely recapitulating it," says Edward Cook, a local builder. "What's more, the building will have excellent sight lines. Not only does that allow you to gun down as many marauders as possible, but it really opens up some wonderful vistas of the Ohio River valley."

It helps too that the current site is blighted. Fort Duquesne itself is in considerable disrepair, having been razed by the British, and the surrounding area is infested with trees and other plant life. Government officials also point out that the area has never been subject to a master-planning process.

Still, doubts remain about the wisdom behind constructing the facility. The new fort has been criticized by peace activists: Such a facility, so close to the new town's civic and commercial centers, will undoubtedly increase military recruitment, they say. "We've just beaten the French," a protest leader, who refused to identify himself, says. "What are we going to do -- rise up against our own king next time?"

Local conservatives, meanwhile, contend that Fort Pitt represents an unacceptable expansion of government's role in local development. If a fort were really necessary, they say, the private sector would already be constructing one.

"We've already seen a huge increase in local tax rates in the past few years," warned Isaac Craig, a former military man turned local business leader. "We have to return to the pro-growth policies of the past." A fort, by virtue of being a government installation, will also pay no property taxes, he pointed out.

In fact, financing for the project remains uncertain. Some have suggested a "drink tax," perhaps in the form of a levy on whiskey. Privately, local officials say the idea is a sound one, despite the possibility of an occasional tar-and-feathering.

But the most serious grievances are those of the Indians, who say they've already been displaced once, by the construction of Fort Duquesne. That project failed to produce promised job benefits, except for a handful of workers in the fur-trade industry. This time around, the natives want assurances that the new fort will result in more tangible improvements.

Distrust of the new arrivals is high, says Guyasuta, a lead negotiator for the Seneca. "The first thing the whites do," he says, "is rename places so that they feel more comfortable moving into them. Then suddenly, none of the rest of us can afford to go there." And despite having previously served as a guide for George Washington, the noted British officer, Guyasuta says he's received little thanks. "Nobody's named anything after me," he observes. "Maybe I'll get a statue or something, but I'm not holding my breath."

For his part, Stanwix is urging native people -- and poor, dispossessed residents in general -- to simply move out of the area. Stanwix recommends resettling on land across the Allegheny River, or perhaps on the steeply grade hill just to the east of the burgeoning village.

"Such areas are far more remote" than the fort site, he says. "I doubt local officials will ever launch a construction project of this size so far away from the town center."

In any case, negotiations between the two sides have stalled. The native community is frequently divided, with various factions as interested in squabbling with each other as anyone else. Indians are pressing for a "tribal benefits agreement," that would be legally binding and would ratify their claims on the land west of Pittsburgh.

But so far, British representatives are balking.

"We're going to review any document very carefully," Stanwix says. "I don't know how it is for these natives, but when those of us who have European blood put our names on an agreement, we stick by it. I'm confident that we'll have a chance to prove that again and again in the years to come."



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