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As America Changed, So Did Fort Hunt

Nearby park's history stretches from Washington to World War II.

The massive concrete fortifications loom over Fort Hunt Park, a strange sight behind baseball diamonds and pavilions. Though it is now a recreation area, stretching over 90 acres, Fort Hunt was once a serious military installation. From being part of George Washington's Mount Vernon estate to an unofficial POW camp, the area frequently transformed to match the state of the country at the time.

"WATCH YOUR step," Park Ranger Dana Dierkes warns as she climbs the cracked stone stairway. "This is a historical site, and very old. Some of the stairs are uneven and worn down." The stairway leads up to a massive gun battery, the largest building remaining from Fort Hunt's military days. This battery once boasted three giant cannons pointed at the Potomac River. Now all that remains are the circular platforms where these guns once rested.

Though the colossal concrete structures are all that remains visible, Fort Hunt's history stretches much further back. "Fort Hunt's history, while it changed over time, reflects the history of Virginia and the history of the nation," Dierkes said. Before any buildings stood here, Native Americans used the Potomac River shoreline for hunting and fishing.

When the British settled in Virginia, the area around what is now Fort Hunt became farm land. A landowner named Giles Brent took control of the land sometime in the 1700s, renting it out to tenant farmers and indentured servants. In 1760, Brent sold his farm to a gentleman named George Washington.

Washington continued to farm the land, but was far more experimental than his predecessors. Virginia was covered with tobacco plantations, which was very hard on the soil. Washington grew corn, wheat, pumpkins, and other, more atypical crops for the area.

In 1893, the federal government took control of the area. During the Spanish-American War, the government became increasingly concerned that the Potomac River provided easy access for a naval assault on Washington. A man named William Endicott spear-headed a project to help defend the waterway. The Endicott study decided to place giant guns on either side of the river — at Fort Hunt and Fort Washington — to fire on enemy ships. The guns were built and operational by 1898.

It is hard to see the strategic benefit of the gun locations now, but at the end of the 19th century, the terrain looked very different. "You see trees now, but while [the fort] was operational, there was nothing. It was a clear shot," Dierkes explained. The fort's distance from the river, about 1,200 feet, might also seem impractical today. However, the guns could fire distances up to eight miles. These were eight-inch breech-loading disappearing guns, massive artillery which could "fold" out of sight to avoid counter-fire.

THE ENEMY ships, however, never came, and the government dismantled the guns during World War II. They were carried to Europe, to be mounted on rail cars and used to help the war effort there. Under President Franklin Roosevelt, the fort was slowly converted to a park. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) helped to change the area, planting trees, erecting signs, and building bridges — all to help create jobs and stimulate the American work-force.

Even while people began using the area for recreation, the government continued secret operations. Captured Germans, mostly U-boat captains, were taken to the fort for interrogation. The fort itself, however, was never officially designated as a POW camp, meaning the restrictions of the Geneva Convention were likely ignored. The area was for interrogation, though, not imprisonment. Of the 3,451 prisoners who passed through Fort Hunt, most only stayed between a week to a month.

Another top secret section of the Fort helped design care packages for American POWs abroad. The program would send coded messages to captured soldiers, informing them of the secret contents of packages. For example, the POWs might receive a seemingly harmless deck of cards, which could be ironed apart to reveal pieces of a map. In another case, a baseball was filled with radio parts. Over the course of the war, this program helped more than 737 prisoners escape from Germany.

Even with all this rich history, much remains to be discovered. "There is a lot we really don't know yet," Dierkes said. For example, the rangers have no idea what most of the rooms inside the fortifications were used for. Dierkes hopes that more veterans, who worked at Fort Hunt while it was operational, would come forward to talk about the experience. "We'd love to hear from them," she said.

The park hopes to make its history more accessible to the public through wayside signs, with text and pictures telling the story of Fort Hunt. It is currently saving up funds for this project.

Most areas of Fort Hunt are open to the public year round, but it contains pavilions that may be reserved from April to October. The park also has a summer concert series, every week except around July 4th.