Monday, June 24, 2024

Marian Buckingham sits on a cannon during an outing at Fort Washington Park in 1883. (Photo: Digital Commonwealth)

For many residents of the Cambridgeport neighborhood, Fort Washington serves as a public park – one frequented largely by dog owners as a place to let their pets run off-leash. Fort Washington Park is the last remaining fortification from the Revolutionary War in Cambridge, but the park and neighborhood hold rich histories beyond the Revolutionary era. The park contains four cannons and earthworks pointing south toward the Charles River, a fortification that George Washington himself ordered to be built. This station was used during the Revolutionary War, and has been through many stages and restorations since. These stages vary from public parks used by vendors and peddlers, a place for children to play, dog parks and more.

In 1857, the deed to the property was acquired by the City of Cambridge, which set about to enclose the area with a wrought-iron fence and provide for its upkeep as a historical park. It was deeded to the city by the Hastings, Dana, Willard and Bartlett families, who also endowed a fund of $800 for the restoration and upkeep of the park. The conditions named in this bequest include “that the above premises when suitably enclosed and adorned by said city, shall forever remain open for light, air, and adornment, for the convenience and accommodation of the owners of estates in said Pine Grove, and of the Public generally.”

From the time it became a public space in the 1850s, the upkeep and proper use of the fort has been debated – hotly, at times. During the Civil War, local papers urged residents and city government to show appropriate reverence for the fort and invest in its upkeep. In the 1870s, editors and politicians supported marking the centennial of the Revolution at the fort, and Civil War regiments held reunion gatherings there, connecting the War for Independence with the North’s struggle against secession and slavery. During both world wars, residents urged fellow Cantabrigians to remember the city’s past struggles for freedom; a 1944 article in the Cambridge Sentinel asked: “With the greatest war in history nearing its climax, with the new and tremendous responsibilities that the nation must meet in a postwar world, to maintain democracy, would it not be a good idea to have upper school classes march to the Fort, and…make Cambridge citizens of the next decade, history minded, hence more intelligent voters of the near future?”

Today, Fort Washington is designated a historic district of the City of Cambridge. The park was rededicated in 2009 on a Cambridgeport History Day after restoration work. Today only the grassy embankments remain to indicate where the original earthworks stood. A series of metal silhouettes created by artist Madeline Lord and installed in 1987 serve to give visitors a glimpse of the people who would have inhabited the fort at different times in its history.

As part of our Year of Cambridgeport, History Cambridge has been exploring the fort’s history and its current uses. This past May, we held an online History Cafe in which historians, scholars and artists discussed the area’s past. On Saturday, we plan a public discussion about how local residents are using the park and how they envision its future. This community conversation will take place from 10 to noon at Fort Washington Park, 95 Waverly St. We welcome all who live or work in Cambridge to drop by for information, activities and snacks for humans and dogs, and to share visions for the Fort Washington of the future. To learn more about the fort and its history, visit our Fort Washington History Hub. For those who are unable to attend Saturday’s event, we welcome ideas by email at [email protected].

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About History Cambridge

History Cambridge started in 1905 as the Cambridge Historical Society. Today we have a new name and a new mission. We engage with our city to explore how the past influences the present to shape a better future. We recognize that every person in our city knows something about Cambridge’s history, and their knowledge matters. We listen to our community and we live by the ideal that history belongs to everyone. Throughout 2023, we are focusing on the history of Cambridgeport. Make history with us at historycambridge.org.

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Beth Folsom is programs manager for History Cambridge.