Op-Ed Contributor, New York Times
Paving Over History
By Mara Farrell
Published: December 9, 2007
IT'S a beautiful thing to have a Revolutionary War site like the Fishkill Encampment and Supply Depot, a nationally registered landmark, in your town. But when the military camp where thousands of George Washington's troops were stationed to keep the British from moving past New York City and capturing the Hudson River is also home to the heavily trafficked Route 9 corridor, pleading for its survival can sometimes feel like a never-ending battle.
You see, the problem is that in recent years, Route 9 has become a giant strip mall with big-box stores, gas stations and motels. In its wake, grand and historic Hudson Valley landmarks like the Rapalje House and Van der Voort estate, where Samuel Loudon printed the first edition of the New York State Constitution, have been razed, forests have been sheared and ancient stone walls turned into gray dust. The biggest growth stems from Fishkill and goes all the way up to Poughkeepsie. Read more...
A passer-by would hardly notice the Fishkill Encampment and Supply Depot.
Aside from the Van Wyck Homestead, which served as a headquarters, there is no trace of the depot's remains. And yet archaeological and scholarly research has revealed that the camp was a one-of-a-kind military city.
Constructed in 1776 under General Washington's orders and modeled after Roman encampments, the complex hummed like a beehive for seven years, steadfast in service and defense for the northern armies. General Washington acknowledged he couldn't have defeated the British without it. Indeed, in terms of historic significance, Valley Forge is nothing compared to the Fishkill Encampment and Supply Depot.
Stretching over more than 70 acres on both sides of Route 9 in Fishkill and hemmed in by Interstate 84, much of the site is now home to the Dutchess Mall, built in the early 1970s, and a Hess gasoline station, built in the 1990s.
Historians believe that hundreds, if not thousands, of Continental Army soldiers who died from war wounds, hypothermia and smallpox are buried in the area.
And now the bulldozers will soon be tearing up one of the site's last pieces of undisturbed land, an eight-acre lot opposite the Dutchess Mall and next to the Van Wyck Homestead, to build more restaurants and shops.
The Fishkill Supply Depot deserves an 11th-hour savior, and the first step is for the Town of Fishkill to recognize its role as protector of this national treasure.
The way the regulatory process works is that unless state or federal agencies are involved in a development project, decision-making remains in the hands of local government. And to be fair to local leaders, when commercial development interests are strong, it's a daunting task to buck the trend. But giving in to a short gust of economic profit ultimately turns up a small prize.
It's true that managing a hefty legacy like the depot can be a tall order.
But once a town becomes acutely aware of this primary role, alliances on a state and federal level can be quickly forged. In Fishkill's case, land trusts and military historians are also waiting in the wings to assist. Fishkill just has to take the first step.
The distressing result of losing a landmark like the depot is irrevocable damage to the historic fabric of New York State and a huge loss to a sustainable tourist industry. Certainly the current town administration doesn't want to be remembered for wiping out a Revolutionary War site.
With negotiation, conviction, imagination and sentiment, new construction can be channeled to places that are more suitable and less valuable. The Fishkill Supply Depot should not be viewed as prime commercial real estate owned by developers because it belongs to all Americans. Indeed, what the town should do instead is build upon its historic landmark and create a major tourist destination.
So much of the Revolutionary War was fought in New York. We must protect this plot of land for now and future generations, because we owe it to ourselves and to the young patriots who gave us the priceless gift of freedom.
The Fishkill Supply Depot and Encampment is a unique and finite resource.
Because of it, Fishkill lays claim to a legacy that many American towns dream of a direct link to our founders and an integral role in the defeat of the British.
Now that's something to stand up for.
Mara Farrell is the co-founder of Fishkill Historical Focus, a historic preservation group.