OSWEGO, NY Ã¢â‚¬â€œ They were about 1,000 individuals from all walks of life, young and old. But, they spoke in one voice Ã¢â‚¬â€œ loud enough to be heard in Albany.
There was no mistaking their message: Don’t close Fort Ontario.
Today’s (March 14) rally at Fort Ontario drew supporters from all across Oswego County as well as several points beyond its borders.
Fort Ontario is one of the most historic places in North America, according to Paul Lear, site manager.
“No place has the history this place does,” he said.
At the start of the rally, there was a reenactment of the raising of the American Flag as was done in 1796 when England finally relinquished control of the fort.
“We just retired the King’s Colors. Now we’re about to put up the American Flag, a 15-star flag, that flew here when the United States first took over,” Lear said. “We hope this won’t be the last time.”
Oswego Mayor Randy shouted out to the crowd as he came to the podium. He received a rather muted “good afternoon” from the hundreds of people in front of him.
“C’mon, people,” he politely admonished them. “This is a rally!”
That increased the crowd’s energy level by tenfold.
“This structure is a cultural and historical asset; it is also an essential part of our economic future; especially since tourism has replaced agriculture as the number one industry in Oswego County,” he said.
He told the crowd he was going to ask a series of questions, the answers to which was “Yes! (Save Fort Ontario)” and urged everyone to yell out the answer loud enough to be heard in Albany.
Some of the questions were: do you remember watching a sunset form the fort, have you ever watched the fireworks from the fort, did you visit the fort ‘dungeons’ when you were young and aim imaginary rifles out the gun ports, do you remember the sound of soldiers marching through the gateway, do you know the fort offered a Safe Haven for World War II refugees?
“If I have touched on one of your reasons for appreciating our Fort Ontario you must agree with me that in the future, everyone must have the opportunity that you have enjoyed,” the mayor said.
“Fort Ontario was home to 982 refugees during World War II,” Judy Coe Rapaport of Safe Haven told the crowd. There are only 140 left of the 982, she noted.
The museum is located on the edges of the fort property.
“We cannot lose this fort. If we lose this fort, the visitors won’t go to Safe Have, too,” she said. “It’s very important to write your representatives, to fight for this fort, to fight for the historical parks and fight for Safe Haven!”
Barry Leemann, chair of the Oswego County Legislature, pledged the county’s support in the fight to save the fort as well as Selkirk Shores.
“We want to send a message to Gov. Paterson and all of our state representatives that enough is enough!” the chairman said. “Oswego County residents are not going to idly sit by and let (the state) ruin our tourism and destroy our county and country’s heritage.”
“Fort Ontario is more than just a place to visit,” he continued. “It is a part of our country’s history. We will defend our fort. It’s been said, ‘let the corporate world and others defend the fort if they want they want it to stay open.’Ã‚Â And, I say bull crap! If New York State cannot afford to operate this important piece of our nation’s history, then they need to make some changes in the way that they do business.”
There are other ways to work toward solving the state’s financial fiasco, he said, accusing the state of trying to take the easy way out.
Oswego County residents won’t forget the sacrifices of the men who died defending the fort, Leemann said.
“The fighting men who defended this fort said, ‘No – you are not taking our fort.’ And we continue to say the same words, no, you are not taking our fort away from us! United we can and we will make a difference.”
Chuck Harrington, president of the Friends of Fort Ontario (the volunteer educational organization that helps support the fort), gave the crowd a brief history of the fort.
When he heard the fort was targeted for closing, he said he was completely surprised.
“The state claims it will save $117,000 by closing the fort,” he noted. The potential lost revenue for the area is $600,000, he added.
“They probably don’t even know where tax revenues come from,” he said.
A group of elementary students led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance.
The students also read some of the letters they wrote in support of the fort.
“Dear Gov. Paterson, I think it would be an atrocity to close Fort Ontario. The fort is a major part of Oswego’s history. There is so much to be gained by keeping Fort Ontario open,” said Christopher Colasurdo of Fitzhugh Park School.
The student received cheers and hearty applause when he asked, “Governor Paterson, if you were governor of Pennsylvania, would you close Gettysburg?”
Another student, Claudia Chetney, said one of Oswego’s most historic places is Fort Ontario.
“Did you know that Jewish refugees came here and were given a place to stay inside our fort during World War II?” she asked the governor in her letter.
She said she realizes cuts have to be made, but the state should look at other options instead of historical sites and parks, she added.
The proposed cuts will only hurt the state because of all the tourism revenues it will forfeit, she continued.
The other letters touched on the historical, recreational and educational significance of the site.
“It’s a tribute to Oswego and the fort that so very many people turned out today,” said Sen. Darrell Aubertine. “That young man couldn’t have put it any better when he asked what the governor would do if he was governor of Pennsylvania. This gathering says it all Ã¢â‚¬â€œ it’s what our heritage means to us.”
It’s not a political issue, not a partisan issue the senator said.
“It’s an issue of concern for all of us. I want to make a commitment to all of you here that I will do everything in my power to make sure this, and all the other historic sites, remain open forever,” Aubertine said. “There is far too much at stake here. First and foremost, it’s our heritage! We need to celebrate that.”
Assemblyman Will Barclay said the turnout and support shown for the fort should make everyone proud.”
“To stop somebody in Albany, or to get something going in Albany, you need grassroots support. I can tell you right now, we have grassroots support for Fort Ontario!” Barclay said.
The assemblyman admits the state is facing tough times and cuts will have to be made.
“But, for the life of me, I can’t understand why they’re trying to balance the budget by closing Fort Ontario,” he said. “In the grand scheme of things, this is a drop in the bucket.”
Fort Ontario is run very efficiently, he said, adding, “The long and short of it is Ã¢â‚¬â€œ it brings in tourism. They’re actually making money.”
This isn’t a Republican or Democrat issue, he said. “It’s “an Oswego County issue.”
The assemblyman and senator shook hands and vowed to work together to save the Port City’s historic landmark.
Bill McCarthy is a member of the Friends of Fort Ontario. The representative of Oswego’s veterans’ groups also spent much of his life associated with the fort in one way or another.
Remember the Alamo, the Maine and now, the fort, he said. He urged everyone to remember a date in the future as well.
“November 2010; remember Fort Ontario on Election Day. Vote your heart and not your designated party lines,” he said.
“If the fort is closed down, Oswego will lose a real treasure,” said Marilyn Dirk, state president of the Daughters of the Union Veterans of the Civil War.
She said she has seen the wonder in the eyes of children who visit the encampments.
“They learn so much with a hands-on touch of history. If this fort is closed, it’s going to be a disaster,” she said. “If you take the past away, you’re going to take the future away.”
Morgan Domicolo put the fort’s plight on Facebook.
“Our Facebook group has over 6,000 members. So thanks to everyone who joined it and thanks to everyone here,” she said. “I can’t remember a single summer that I haven’t gone to the fort at least multiple times.”
One of her neighbors lived at the fort when her father was stationed there in the 1940s, she said.
Closing the fort, her home, would be like watching a huge part of her life go out the window, she said.
John Scardella, president of Harborfest’s board of directors, pointed out that the summer festival selected the fort for one of its most popular venues not just for its “wide openness.”
The site was also picked for its educational and historical significance, he explained.
“It’s a place where the children could have the history right there as a backdrop,” he said. “We want Harborfest to be educational as well as entertainment.”
The proposed cuts would take away not only our history, but our education, he said.
Scardella comes from a labor background and got the crowd to yell out a variation of a labor chant. When (the state) says cutback, he began, we say fight back, the audience responded.
“We need to fight back in order to save the fort,” he said.
“Each one of us needs to step up and donate a little bit to the fort,” said Pulaski area legislator Shawn Doyle, who was speaking as an official of the Sons of the American Revolution (Syracuse Chapter).
The chapter’s president presented Harrington with a $500 donation.
“We’re here because we’re Americans and we want to save this fort.Ã‚Â We stand on hallowed ground. How can we close a cemetery to our veterans?” said Fulton legislator Louella LeClair, reminding everyone the post cemetery was just a few hundred yards away. “Who would have ever thought that we’d be standing here again, today, fighting another battle to save the fort? This is an abomination to think that any elected official any place in this country would even consider closing down our history. We will fight to keep this piece of American history alive!”
Mike Myers, alderman of the ward where the fort is located, was impressed with the huge turnout.
“Everything went very well. I am glad to see such a huge turnout, that was excellent,” he said. “I want to thank Assemblyman Barclay and Sen. Aubertine for their support and all the members of the (city) council and legislature who were here in force. I think it’s great that the community came out and showed its support for saving Fort Ontario Ã¢â‚¬â€œ I hope that Albany hears our message.”
“Let’s be realistic, our industry here is tourism,” Thom Benedetto pointed out. “If we can show Albany there will be a long-term financial impact, then they need to consider that. They can’t try and balance a budget at the expense of losing our history and decimating Oswego County’s tourism industry.”