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Insiders: Early History of Fort Hunt Park

Located on the Potomac River 11-1/2 miles south of Washington, Fort Hunt Park’s 105 grassy acres provides hours of entertainment and relaxation for thousands of Mount Vernon’s residents and visitors each year. Except for the crumbling remains of four Endicott-era batteries, the decrepit shell of an old fire control station, and an old vacant house, there is nothing to indicate the park’s long and diverse history. Seldom has one geographical area been put to so many different uses as has Fort Hunt. During its relatively short lifetime, it has served as a farm; a coastal defense fort; an Army Finance school; a supply depot; a brigade headquarters, an ROTC training camp; a hospital for indigent Bonus Marchers; a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp; a National Park Service exhibition lab; a monitoring station for the Army Signal Corps; a top secret interrogation center for German prisoners of war; and a film storage vault for the National Archives.

Fort Hunt was originally a part of the River Farm, one of the five farms that comprised George Washington's 5,000-acre Mount Vernon estate which was acquired by a grant to John Washington, the great-grandfather of George Washington, in April 1669. It was kept as farmland until 1892 when the War Department purchased the land for use as a fort to defend Washington, D. C. Construction on Fort Hunt began in 1897 as a result of concern over America’s increasingly poor relations with Spain. Once war was declared in March 1898, 48 men from the Fourth Coast Artillery were stationed at the fort in order to guard the installation. The troops lived in tents until permanent quarters were completed in1899. Construction of concrete emplacements of a battery for three 8-inch, breech-loading disappearing rifles began in 1897.

On April 13, 1899, President McKinley designated this area as Fort Hunt, in honor of Major-General Henry J. Hunt, United States Army. Hunt was an artillery officer with a distinguished record of service during the Mexican War and the Civil War.

The armaments at Fort Hunt were not completed until January 1904. They consisted of the Mount Vernon Battery with three 8-inch rifles; Batteries with three 3-inch rapid fire guns; and Batteries Porter and Robinson, each of which mounted a 5-inch rapid fire gun. On May 25, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt named these Batteries in honor of the fallen soldiers who bear their names.

The guns, with their stone and concrete pits banked with sod, were about 100-feet lower than those of Fort Washington, just across the river in Maryland. The firing system remained inefficient until a primary range-finding station, a fire-control system, a 60-inch searchlight, a tide observing station, and an electric lighting plant were added in 1905. The fort never contained more than one company of 109 men.

Garrison life was uneventful except for changes in command. During World War I, the War Department declared the fort superfluous. The guns were dismantled during 1917 and 1918 and transferred to other forts, but a small garrison remained at Fort Hunt. The War Department established a Finance School at the now-obsolete fort in 1921, and by 1923 the garrison of the post was manned by only two officers and eight men. The abandonment of Fort Hunt was approved on April of 1923. The cost to the Government of the fort from 1897 until June 30, 1922, amounted to $309,725.55.

Control of the fort passed through many hands during the ensuing years and eventually was returned to the War Department. In 1933 development of Fort Hunt as a recreation area with picnic grounds and camping facilities began. A museum laboratory where exhibits and models were constructed attracted so much interest from Anthony Eden, former Foreign Minister of Great Britain, that he visited the camp in December 1938 and requested a copy of the plan for the conversion of the Fort Hunt area to recreational usage.

Fort Hunt again received national attention when the King and Queen of Great Britain visited it during June 1939. They were accompanied by the President and Mrs. Roosevelt.

During World War II, 230 acres of the fort were set aside for secret intelligence activities until 1946 when the War Department decided to move the Intelligence Division to Mitchell Field. A small security detachment remained to guard the "classified" materials until the War Department declared the fort surplus property on Nov. 15, 1946. The last troops left on Nov. 23, 1946.

In January 1948, the Museum Division of the National Park Service moved the laboratory from the Ford's Theatre building to Fort Hunt. Exhibits and dioramas for the Museums at the Manassas National Battlefield Park, Virginia, and the Guilford Courthouse National Military Park, North Carolina, were partially completed here. This unit also worked on projects for the Atomic Energy Commission. The Department of the Interior and U.S. Park Police replaced the guards, and members of the fire department were removed by the War Department on June 30, 1948.