By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
History can be fun, and people only need to travel as far as the Fort Ontario State Historic Site, on the east side of Oswego, to enjoy that fun — whether it’s taking a tour, enjoying a concert or going on a ghost hunt.
The current fort is built on the ruins of three earlier forts, the first one having been constructed in 1755. Throughout the centuries, its various incarnations and surrounding grounds have been the site of battles during the French and Indian Wars and the War of 1812 and as a Union recruitment center during the Civil War. It was occupied by the U.S. Army through World War II; served as a refugee camp for mostly Jewish victims of the Holocaust from 1944 to 1946; and was home to World War II vets and their families from 1946 to 1953.
Tucked into a corner of the site is a cemetery where 77 officers, soldiers, women and children who served at the fort over the years have been laid to rest.
“We have such a wide range of history, it gives people an opportunity to not just experience our history, but also to do that in an outside-inside environment,” according to Danielle Funiciello, historic site assistant at the Fort.
The history becomes much more relatable, she said, with visitors having the chance to take self-guided tours where they can explore the interiors of the various buildings comprising the Fort; climb up on the ramparts to see the cannons and cannonballs and some commanding views of Lake Ontario; and get a sense of how people lived in the past.
Staff and volunteers, often dressed in clothing from 1868-69 when a post-Civil War Veteran’s Reserve Corps was stationed at the fort, re-enact chores and occupations from that era.
There are several special events planned for the summer that will appeal to history, fashion and music buffs.
• Women’s Weekend at Fort Ontario: A Symposium on Gender, Fashion, and Labor since 1755. The event will run June 24-25, with speakers and historical interpreters giving demonstrations of historical skills or discussing certain topics from women’s history. This will also include a “Fashion Timeline” fashion show, demonstrating clothing over the time that the fort has been in operation. On Sunday, June 25, a new interpretive panel will be revealed that discusses the 19th century laundresses that were employed by the army. This will be followed with a talk by staffer Christina Goettel, who researched and wrote the panel, Funiciello said.
• Symphoria returns to present a free summer concert on the fort’s Parade Grounds on Friday, July 7, and Funicilcello said that fireworks fans flock to the lawn area outside the fort to enjoy the pyrotechnics during Harborfest celebration.
• A Civil War Living History Weekend is slated for Aug. 26-27, featuring an encampment of a group of historical interpreters, who are mainly dressed as Civil War era civilians. They will demonstrate and teach the public about a variety of trades from this period.
• During the Lantern Tours, costumed guides take visitors through grounds, sharing stories of “strange happenings,” Funiciello said, that have occurred at the fort over its long and colorful history. These walks, which are approximately 1.5 miles, are held one night a week toward the end of the summer. Specific dates had not been determined at publication time.
• A Fife and Drum Corps Day on Labor Day, Sept. 4, will feature groups from all over the world, Funiciello added.
• This year’s Ghost Hunt at the fort will be Oct. 14. It is a pre-sale tickets-only event in which visitors go out through the grounds with Central New York ghost hunter groups in search of apparitions. One of the more popular ghosts is Private George Fikes, a British soldier who died at the fort in 1782. Organizers say there may also be a ghost cat. Several employees, Funiciello said, have reported that when they go into the barracks building, they will sometimes feel something, like a cat, rubbing up against their legs. But there is, in fact, no cat there.
For updated information on these events, Funiciello suggests checking out the fort’s Facebook page.
The fort is open Wednesdays through Sundays, from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Wednesdays through Sundays, from mid-May to mid-October. It is closed Mondays and Tuesdays, except for holidays. Call 315-343-4711 for more information. Admission is $4 for adults; seniors, 62 and over, and students are $3.