Although it never saw action during the Civil War, Fort Bunker Hill (above, Library of Congress), along with the other 67 forts ringing the city, served its purpose: protecting the nation’s capital. When the war commenced in 1861, the Army frantically began building defensive fortifications to surround the city. If you owned land where they wanted to put a fort, too bad, the government took what they needed under the “stern law of military necessity.” In addition to the actual forts and batteries, roads were built, rifle pits dug, trees clearcut, campgrounds established — all regardless of the harm they caused to the owners’ fields, crops, and buildings. At Fort Bunker Hill, both the Henry Queen farm and the adjoining property of Jehiel Brooks sustained considerable damage from the military occupation.
At war’s end in 1865 the government decided that most of the fort sites would be returned to the owners, including Fort Bunker Hill. The Army had constructed 32 wood-framed buildings around the fort, and they offered them to Henry Queen as compensation for damages. He declined, probably thinking he could get more value filing a war claim. The buildings were then put on public auction in late 1865. Henry Queen bought some of them, presumably to tear them down and use the lumber elsewhere on the farm.
It is possible however, that he and the other buyers didn’t tear them down immediately, in which case they might have been used by contrabands — escaped and newly-freed slaves. Some 30,000 formerly enslaved people came to Washington during and at the end of the war. Without adequate housing available, many gravitated to the recently vacated forts. One contemporary writer described it this way:
All the forts around or overlooking the city are dismantled, the guns taken out of them, the land resigned to its owners. Needy negro squatters, living around the forts, have built themselves shanties of the officers’ quarters, pulled out the abatis for firewood, made cord wood or joists out of the log platforms for the guns, and sawed up the great flag-staffs into quilting poles or bedstead posts.
Unfortunately, the writer didn’t give any particular locations, and we don’t know if a contraband community developed at Fort Bunker Hill. We also don’t know what happened to the two dozen enslaved people who worked the Queen and Brooks farms until the Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862 ended their bondage. Only one of them, a man named Gabriel Taylor, shows up in the 1870 census as still working on the farm, now as a free man.
With fewer workers, Queen’s farm limped along, never quite recovering. Then Henry Queen’s war claim against the Army was rejected in 1867. His financial woes may have hastened his sudden death in 1870 at the age of 56. His sisters, Mary and Elizabeth Queen, soon sold part of the farm property, about 50 acres worth, to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, who opened a stock yard there. The property that included the fort remained relatively untouched after the war, and the earthen walls of Fort Bunker Hill slowly were overtaken with brush and undergrowth.
After Jehiel Brooks died in 1886, his land was sold to developers and the neighborhood of Brookland began. Streets were laid out around it, but the fort site, though it changed hands a number of times, remained undeveloped, except for a single home built on the southwest corner of the square in 1894 (see 1919 real estate map, right).
That home, built on the highest point in the neighborhood, belonged to a local eccentric named Joseph Paul Burg and became known to Brooklanders as the “Castle on the Rhine.” At around the same time a wooden tower was erected on the fort site (probably by the developers of University Heights), and it soon became a popular spot for 4th of July festivities, including speeches, band concerts, athletic games, and of course, fireworks.
Starting around 1895, the residents of Brookland and University Heights began agitating for the purchase of the fort site to use as a public park. With the McMillan Plan in 1902, the government began seriously looking at ways to turn some of the forts into parks and connecting them with a scenic parkway. It came to be called Fort Circle Drive and would have given the city a beautiful ring of greenery. But the bureaucratic process was very slow and purchasing all the land necessary became untenable as the decades went by. The road never came to fruition, except for a few sections here and there. But as part of their planning for the Fort Circle Parks, the National Park and Planning Commission purchased the Fort Bunker Hill land in 1927.
Though the fort site was now government property, the landscaping didn’t get very far, if it started at all. It would be Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal that finally fulfilled the promise.
The Civilian Conservation Corps was one of the most successful of FDR’s New Deal programs. Started in 1933, it was designed to provide work relief to young men ages 17-23 through employment on useful civic projects, most revolving around natural resources conservation. They were paid $30 a month, group leaders a bit more, and were required to send part of the earnings home to dependent family. The CCC created work camps throughout the country, where the enrollees received a uniform, food, and shelter. The War Department built and managed them, which led to criticism from organized labor about creating socialist-style government camps that could lead to state control of the work force. But the majority of the country supported the CCC wholeheartedly.
In the west, the young men fought forest fires, planted trees, cleared and maintained access roads, re-seeded grazing lands and implemented soil-erosion controls. When the program was expanded later in 1933, it incorporated the National Capital Parks, including Fort Bunker Hill and a few other forts, and transferred control to the National Park Service. In 1936, the young men from camp NP-8-VA were assigned to work on both Fort Stevens and Fort Bunker Hill. At Fort Stevens, they reconstructed the main part of the fort using concrete logs to simulate the original timber.
At Fort Bunker Hill, not only was brush cleared and gravel walkways created, but most significant of all, an amphitheater and stage was constructed, with fixed log seats that could hold 250. They also created a picnic area with tables, benches and water fountains. Brookland citizens contributed as well, donating over 5,000 laurel plants, along with hundreds of trees, including dogwood and oak. At its formal dedication on June 12, 1937, Fort Bunker Hill was now most definitely a park, and a beautiful one at that. Here are a few pictures taken in the late 30s after the CCC had finished their work:
After pushing for over 40 years, Brooklanders were overjoyed with the newly created park and it was put to immediate use. The National Park Service began showing weekly travelogue and nature films there, lectures and slideshows started, concerts were held, plays were performed, some by locals, and eventually by students from Catholic University’s drama department. In the 1940s, the NPS began sponsoring summer day camps for kids at a number of the forts. At first the camp at Fort Bunker Hill Park was for whites only, but became fully integrated during the 1950s.
In 1938, condemnation proceedings were begun in District court against Joseph Paul Burg’s home on the southwest corner of the block. Burg moved out in 1941, and the building was finally torn down in the late 40s.
Though the park continued to be used regularly during the 1950s and 60s, the National Park Service had difficulty with upkeep as budgets dwindled. Overgrowth began to creep in once again. In the 1970s, Catholic University stopped bringing plays to the park and that seemed to signal the end of Fort Bunker Hill as an active recreation area. The park today remains a fine place for a walk. You might run across a surviving laurel bush or two, maybe even a family of deer. The remnants of the amphitheater are still there, and the earthen outlines of the fort itself are plainly visible, a reminder of how important this land once was to the defense of the city. For the last decade or so, the Brookland Neighborhood Civic Association has teamed with the National Park Service to perform regular clean-ups of Fort Bunker Hill Park. I applaud that effort and hope the park endures for many more decades to come.
Thanks to John Feeley, Rosie Dempsey and Tyler Nelson for helping to track down the Burg house and amphitheater photos.
Civilian Conservation Corps Activities in the National Capital Region of the National Park, Historic American Buildings Survey, National Park Service, 2004
Civil War Defenses of Washington Historic Resource Study, National Park Service, 2004
Cultural Landscapes Inventory: Fort Bunker Hill, University of Pennylvania, Randall F. Mason principal investigator, 2017
Einberger, Scott, From Forts to Forest: The Parks of Michigan Park, 2017
Henley, Laura Arlene, “The Past Before Us: An Examination of the Pre-1880 Cultural and Natural Landscape of Washington County.” PhD dissertation, Catholic University of America, 1993
Townsend, George Alfred, Washington Outside and Inside, James Betts and Co., Hartford, 1873