The town the War of 1812 built

by Talbot Eckweiler

Part four in a five-part series.

Constance Barone sits at her office desk and adjusts her spectacles. For the last eight years, she’s been the site manager for Sackets Harbor Historic Site near Watertown, New York. In 2012, the site will celebrate its bicentennial anniversary as one of the major sites of the War of 1812. While two hundred years makes for many a memory, for Barone, the site holds a personal history that spans three generations.

“My mother’s father was in the naval militia, so he was involved right here on this property,” Barone says. “My mother as a teenager grew up here, in this house. They lived here and this was my mother’s bedroom,” she says and nods at the office area.

The Lieutenant’s House, a pale-yellow brick building, was built in 1847 for the second in command of the navy yard. Narrow, low-ceiling staircases and uneven wooden floors lead to dark rooms settled in silent repose. In October, the peak tourist season has passed, and now the site settles down for winter.

“When I first took the job this building was vacant because it had been the site manager’s living quarters. And after I was here a couple years, we realized—our offices were across the property on the other side of the street—we realized this was the main contact point for the public coming to visit this site so we decided, ‘Well, this is where our offices should be,’” Barone says.

Sackets Harbor Historic Site welcomed 94,000 visitors last year. The 70-acre site boasts 10 buildings and a “history trail,” that shares educational insights about the War of 1812, sign post by sign post. Aside the lieutenant’s house is the fully-furnished commandant’s house, invaded over the winter by second graders coming to visit on school field trips.

The historic battlefield has been mostly untouched in the last 200 years. Overlooking the sapphire-black waters of the harbor, the centennial monument stands among the memorial tree grove. By late autumn, the trees have molted into fiery reds and lemon yellows—there’s one tree for every year since the site was dedicated in 1913 by then Asst. Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The National Park Service (NPS) rated Sackets as one of the top ten sites of the War of 1812, Barone says, and she’s heard the site is actually the second or third on that list. Recently, the village of Sackets Harbor received a grant to create a master plan for the park management, and the village officials then nominated the battlegrounds as a national historic landmark.

Barone says the criteria for becoming a national historic landmark falls into two categories: “The categorization is how the battlegrounds are today—ours are relatively untouched. The other is the threat, and ours was threatened with (development).”

Several years ago, the NPS noted that the Sackets Harbor battleground overcame the threat of development that many pristine battlegrounds face. However, more recently the historic site has faced a new threat: closure.

Last year, then-Governor Patterson announced a proposal to close 41 parks and 14 historic sites across New York State. Sackets Harbor was on the proposed closure list. “We’re the only historic site in the Thousand Islands region,” Barone says. She says it’s difficult to keep  a historic site open in part because a historic sites has no way to make money. The only fee for visiting the Sackets Harbor Historic Site is an optional $3 donation for adults (and $2 for children) who tour the commandant’s house.

photo by Jessica Kumor

The Grand Tactical

The threat of closure for the Sackets Harbor Historic Site came at a time when the site planned one of the biggest events it’s hosted since the war itself: 2010 North American War of 1812 Grand Tactical. The event is organized by the Crown Forces of North America, the United States Northwest Army and the 7th U.S. Infantry Consolidated Company.  It’s hosted at a different historic site every year, either in the United States or in Canada.

For two days, volunteers live in the same conditions as soldiers and merchants during the War of 1812. The volunteers set up historically-accurate camps, re-enact artillery drills and battle strategies. Nearby, period-appropriate artisans (sutlers) set up period craft stands and cooking demos, while educators and volunteers organize children’s games also true to the period.

In her office, Barone indicates a stack of papers and a binder the thickness of a Webster dictionary—it’s some of the paperwork she had to process for the Grand Tactical. “And that doesn’t include the 400 volunteer forms that needed to be signed. They also have to sign off that they’ve read the black powder rules and will obey them, and whether they’re willing to have their photographs taken,” she says. “The Grand Tactical was a big event. We estimate we had about 6,500 people here for that weekend.”

Eight years ago, Sackets Harbor didn’t even have its own reenactment program. “When I got here, there were absolutely no volunteers and no volunteer groups, no not-for-profit group. We were the only state historic site without a Friends group,” Barone says.

photo by Jessica Kumor

But then along came the creation of The Sackets Harbor Battlefield Alliance. According to the group’s website, “The Alliance has purchased reproduction period clothing for the site’s interpreters, provided support for the site’s publications and advertising, provided computer hardware and software to support the site’s activities, and provided financial support for a number of site-sponsored public events and activities.”

Former Alliance president Susan Gibson worked to prevent the closure of the historic site. “When we figured out closure was imminent, we began a vigorous telephone/email campaign. We had Canadians, re-enactors, historians…,” Gibson says.

The Alliance tried to find alternate ways to keep the park open if the state cut funding. “If closure was imminent, the site would not be closed, as far as the Alliance was concerned,” Gibson says.

The group also had questions about what closure meant. “If it closes, can we provide other support like landscaping or fencing?” Gibson asks. She points out that, without maintenance, aspects of the site would be damaged beyond repair. “In five to ten years, stuff could be destroyed,” she says. “I met my husband on the battlefield, and we’re committed to helping the site.”

photo by Jessica Kumor

The Community

While closure may have meant the deterioration of the site’s assets, Sackets Harbor residents also wondered about the effect on their community.

Gibson is a seamstress who specializes in bridal work and historically accurate clothing. She’s been sewing for over forty years, since she was a teenager. She became interested in making period-garb when her son needed a costume for re-enactments in Ontario.

Gibson specializes in 1812 uniforms, which take her about a week to make if she works morning, noon and night. She does painstaking research on the period before starting the garment, though by now, she knows some of the information by heart. “In 1812, the government issuance for 1812 had a special appearance: a dark navy blue with yellow trim, red turn backs, and brass artillery buttons,” she says. The uniforms were flashy, she says, because the men wanted, “to get blown up in a blaze of glory.”

However, the uniforms changed in 1813, because the military was running out of wool. The military then hired local seamstresses, who made the uniforms by hand. “They eliminated red, and cut the tails shorter, and then they changed in 1814 to something plainer,” Gibson says.

Today, a genuine, custom-made re-enactor’s uniform can cost anywhere between $450 and $850.

Without the re-enactments in the summer, Gibson’s business would suffer. “We in Sackets Harbor, we promote the idea that we’re a year-round community. It’s difficult for us to do that. People still think we’re seasonal. The majority of profit is made May through September, which is also the season for the battlefield to be open,” she says.

“As someone here five days a week, I get people from all over the country and Canada (asking) me where to eat, what to do, and I tell them to go to the battlefield. I also get people fascinated by the War of 1812. Many business owners try to capitalize on that. The Union Hotel does historical tours.”

The Union Hotel is one of the many buildings in the town of Sackets Harbor that benefits from the historical status of the battlefield.

According to, New York State acquired the former Union Hotel building in 1972 and rehabilitated it as the Visitor’s Center for the historic site. Also according to the website, the hotel was “constructed between 1816-1817 by Frederick White (…) to take advantage of the post-War hotel trade.”

Along Main Street in Sackets Harbor, colorful buildings boast culinary delicacies, art galleries, and specialty shops. And the shops cash in on the historic site’s proximity. For example, tucked along the water, the Sackets Harbor Brewing Company, Co. has a special ale named in honor of the War of 1812.

Across the street from the Union Hotel, an educational sign bears the heading, “Sackets Harbor: Built on the War of 1812 Heritage.” While the modern Main Street in Sackets Harbor is picturesque and pleasant, in the late 1970s, Main Street was a different scene entirely.

courtesy of Constance Barone

Urban Renewal

Rick West spent 36 years working for the New York State park system. He started right out of high school, and he remembers what Sackets Harbor was like prior to renovation in the 1970’s. “When I first started working, people went to the battlefield to drink,” West says.

In 1975, the community founded the Sackets Harbor Historical Society. According to the society’s website, “The Historical Society (…) played an active role in the Main Street Beautification Program, the placement of the Village business district on the National Register of Historic Places, the designation of Sackets Harbor as one of New York State’s original fourteen Urban Cultural Parks (now Heritage Areas).”

According to the Sackets Harbor Village Heritage Director, Dave Alteri, in the 1970s, the town of Sackets Harbor became involved in two government programs for renovation: the Local Waterfront Revitalization Program (LWRP) and the Heritage Area Program. The LWRP enables towns with waterfront resources to create a community development plan, and when the plan is approved, the town receives funding and assistance from the state. The Heritage Area Program in New York State is funded by the Environmental Protection Fund (EPF), and is another program that gives grant money to towns for the purpose of historical preservation.

During that time, residents like West followed the renovation trend and bought property on Main Street. West recalls, “I was in my twenties, making $7-8,000 a year. I bought a building on Main Street (to renovate).”

But the process wasn’t easy. “This house had people squatting in it. The toilets were plugged,” he says. The plumbing was ripped out, and the windows were broken. “You can describe the look,” West says, “but not the smell.”

West says he bought the house for about $4,000, fixed it, and resold it for $30,000. “It was all sweat equity,” he says. He didn’t receive grant money for the work he did on the house. West says several other people in the community did the same thing—bought a house with their own money, fixed it, and sold it for a profit.

“I think you gotta have a vision, you’ve got to start somewhere, and people did. The state put money into the battlefield, which helped. Sometimes it just takes one person working on a building to make a difference. If the battlefield had closed, the effect would’ve been devastating,” West says. He adds, “If you live next to somewhere nice, it motivates you to maintain your property.”

As someone who worked for the parks for 36 years, West also questions the effects the site’s closure would have had on his legacy. “I went to the parks straight out of high school, it was my whole career,” he says. “I love the parks. They’re how I provided for my family. I find it disturbing that we spent 30 years fixing (the battlefield) up, and now they want to close it. Who’s fault is that?”

“It’s a shame people value things different,” West says. “The places like the battlefield are viewed as step-children because they don’t make money—parks do. It’s a sad commentary on how people look at things. (The historic sites) provide other services you can’t put into dollars and cents.”