Fort Ontario prepares 1812 symposium

Photo by Adam Wolfe | The Oswegonian

State Parks Department employees at Fort Ontario announced a symposium this week to highlight the fort’s role in the War of 1812. The conference is just one piece in a move to generate interest in the venerable military site.

“We’re fighting two wars at once here at Fort Ontario,” Paul Lear said. Lear, a history buff in olive drab with frame-less glasses and muttonchops, is Fort Ontario’s historic site manager.

He was speaking about the anniversaries of both 1812 and the Civil War, of which Fort Ontario also played a part. But he could have also meant that maintaining the fort is an effort fought on two fronts: site restoration and community outreach.

The “Oswego County War of 1812 Symposium” planned for March 31 is part of the outreach push. Lear said he hopes for a two-day program and he already has a roster of notable War of 1812 scholars slated to speak. They’ll be discussing topics as varied as sunken ships of Lake Ontario, the role of the Iroquois in the War of 1812 and Regency-era clothing. The symposium will occur at the American Foundry and costs $15 for students, $25 for others. Reservation forms are available on the fort’s website.

Despite the near closing of the fort two years ago, the imposing stone structure has seen a flurry of activity recently. Thanks to money from Gov. Cuomo’s budget last year, Lear has been able to replace boilers and improve leaky basements on site, among other projects like installing a new lock system and capping chimneys.

“It was pretty awesome,” Lear said. “One of the most historic, significant sites in U.S. history is being restored and improved.”

During the War of 1812, the main theatres of action were the Great Lakes, Lear said; most US troops were posted in central and western New York. While the British and Americans battled back and forth over Lakes Erie and Champlain, Lake Ontario and Oswego were considered such essential supply routes that neither side risked losing position. Each militia focused mostly on building its navy on the lake in what became derisively known as “the battle of the carpenters.” However, the British eventually took Oswego and razed Fort Ontario in May 1814.