The Palisades Interstate Park is a National Historic Landmark.
Palisades Interstate Park in New Jersey

Planting for the Future

Ross Dock playground Fort Lee Historic Park The Kearney House.

“Planting for the Future” was first published in the November-December 2005 issue of “Cliff Notes.”

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Visitors can expect to see some changes on the grounds at Fort Lee Historic Park in upcoming months. The Historic Park, which overlooks the George Washington Bridge from the south, was established in 1976 as part of the nation’s Bicentennial celebration, and has over the past three decades become an integral part of both the New Jersey Section of the Palisades Interstate Park and of the Fort Lee neighborhood in which it is set. The school program offered by the Historic Park receives over a thousand “recruits” into the Continental Army each year, the students — most of them fifth graders — learning firsthand about daily life in the eighteenth century. They cook their own lunch; they cut and split firewood; they handcraft candles and musket balls. Throughout a typical day, meanwhile, dozens of residents of Fort Lee and nearby towns (including Manhattan, a ten-minute walk across the George Washington Bridge from the Historic Park) stroll the 33-acre grounds to admire the views of the Bridge, the Hudson River, and downtown New York City and its bustling harbor.

As recounted two years ago here, a reproduction soldier’s hut, a central feature of the school program that had burned in 2001, has already been replaced, through the efforts of staff, volunteers, and a Pennsylvania craftsman named Roland Cadle. Soon, Roland and our staff and volunteers will add a reproduction officer’s quarters to the campsite where the school programs are held at the southern end of the Historic Park. As the next year progresses, in addition to these structures, visitors can look to see a reproduction blockhouse to be built to Revolutionary standards in commemoration of the 225th anniversary of a blockhouse that was built — and fought over — on the site in 1781 (see “American v. American”).

Meanwhile, work will be commencing on the replacement of the “fascines” — the reproduction fortifications around the old gun batteries — that were installed in 1976. The Bicentennial fascines were made from fiberglass; never that attractive to begin with, they have not weathered well. The replacement fascines will be made from actual timbers. In exploring these additions, visitors will pass by a number of newly installed interpretive signs, as well. And soon — a new 32-pound cannon will be on the grounds. (Cannons are classified by the weight of the cannonballs they fire: a 32-pounder fires an iron shot that is roughly the size of a bowling ball … there were a number of these deadly monsters at the historic Fort Lee battlements.)

These physical improvements accompany an expansion of the Historic Park’s school program, from three days a week to four, to help accommodate demand from schools that has seen its waiting list expand to two years or more.

A reasonable question, in contemplating all of these improvements, ongoing and proposed, is how will the Park Commission pay for them? Part of the answer is that the Commission’s budget is developed each year with an eye toward capital improvements such as these, that it is a part of what we plan for each and every year. A century ago, the park was itself conceived as an investment in future generations; by continuing to expand and improve our facilities, with an eye toward generations yet to come, we are simply living up to the mandate established by generations past. Our budget, therefore, by both necessity and design, is drawn up each year with these concerns in mind. It is not enough (though obviously essential) to budget to maintain what already exists; we are obliged to also anticipate future trends and needs.

But in the case of many of the improvements listed above, the funding comes from a more direct and unexpected source.

Many of our readers will be familiar with the well-publicized case of a landowner in Alpine who two years ago cut down a number of trees on park property adjacent to his own — quite without the Park Commission’s permission, of course. The ensuing lawsuit, which ended with the perpetrator taking a plea that included a sizeable payment in damages to the park, also well publicized, is the source for many of these improvements at Fort Lee Historic Park. To be sure, it was a mixed blessing: surely, we did not enjoy seeing an acre’s worth of trees face the axe, nor did we relish seeing our staff have to dedicate many hours of valuable time in a courtroom. Still, the final settlement has enabled us to bring about changes that might otherwise have had to wait a year or two longer to occur.

In addition to the work that has been done or will be done at Fort Lee Historic Park, visitors can look to see a new playground to be installed at Ross Dock. Meanwhile, at the Kearney House, at the other end of the park, newly relined chimneys are already allowing fireplaces that have lain cold and dormant for decades to once more provide cheer and warmth — as well as some home cooking.

A common denominator, in how we plan in general and how we spend the damages awarded in this individual lawsuit in particular, can be found in the fact that we are building with children in mind. The improvements outlined in this article benefit all of our visitors, of course, but it is our youngest visitors, we feel, who stand to benefit the most from them.

A generation from now, of course, it is they — these children who come to the park to play and to learn — who will continue whatever good works we are able to bestow upon them.