OSWEGO — Local officials are urging the public to contribute to the ongoing Fort Ontario Special Resource Study, part of the effort to create a National Park at the Oswego site.
With historic Fort Ontario as a backdrop, Rep. John Katko, R-Camillus, and Oswego officials on Tuesday said the centuries-old military installation’s push to join the National Park system is moving forward with the opening of a public comment period. The comment period, which is part of the federally commissioned Fort Ontario Special Resource Study (SRS) begins today and runs through Nov. 1.
“This is a huge step forward,” Katko said. “The study period is very, very important for Fort Ontario... it’s the last step before they make the recommendation on whether or not to have this entity become a national park.”
Katko, who sponsored the bill to create and fund the SRS in the U.S. House of Representatives, called the public comment period “a crucial step” in the process and encouraged individuals to share their thoughts on the potential national park designation and any materials, including photos, diaries or letters, that could support the effort.
“Fort Ontario is truly historical and a cultural treasure worthy of national recognition,” Katko said, noting the site has “unique qualities that no other site has.”
Fort Ontario, located along the shore of Lake Ontario where the Oswego River enters the Great Lake, is currently a state historic site and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970. Forts have existed on the site in various forms since the mid-1700s, with the current stone fort built in the 1840s.
Oswego Mayor Billy Barlow Barlow said the national park designation would be “a great shot in the arm” for the local economy and called it “a great opportunity for Oswego.” Barlow said the designation would provide a boost to small businesses in and around the Oswego community, in addition to showcasing the area’s history.
“Everybody here in Oswego and around Oswego knows how important Fort Ontario is and the unique story that we have here,” Barlow said. “But we’re very excited to continue to advocate and lobby for this designation so that we can share this story and our local history with the rest of the nation and even the rest of the world.”
Barlow expressed gratitude for Katko and his efforts on Tuesday morning, calling the congressman “Fort Ontario’s biggest advocate.”
Historians and local officials have pointed out the rich history of Fort Ontario — from its role in the French and Indian War, American Revolution and War of 1812 to its use as a hospital in World War I and a training center in World War II. Perhaps most noteworthy, however, is the less than two-year period, from August 1944 to February 1946, when Fort Ontario served as an emergency shelter for nearly 1,000 mostly Jewish European war refugees fleeing the horrors of the Holocaust.
Local officials in recent years have focused heavily on the dramatic refugee story, noting it is the only instance where Jewish European refugees were brought to the U.S. to flee Nazi persecution. Katko called the refugee shelter “a humanitarian godsend,” and a representation of the spirit of the American people.
Katko said his vision for a national park at the site would have “a special emphasis” on the refugee shelter, which is currently represented by the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum adjacent to the fort, noting the importance of refugee history resonates today as thousands of people flee Afghanistan and other areas.
“It’s part of our fabric to save these people and help those less fortunate,” Katko said. “That’s what our country is built on and that’s why this is so important.”
The SRS, which commenced earlier this year, is aimed at gauging the eligibility and suitability of an area to be designated a national park. The National Park Service (NPS) collects information about the resources within the study area and evaluates the potential for visitor enjoyment, efficient management and feasibility. According to NPS, civic engagement and public outreach are crucial to informing the study.
NPS officials will evaluate Fort Ontario based on four criteria and the site must meet all four to receive a recommendation from the agency. Criteria include the presence of nationally significant natural and/or cultural resources, the representation of natural or cultural resources not already adequately represented in the park system, a site of sufficient size and appropriate configuration and the requirement that NPS managementwould be superior to other management approaches.
Following completion of the SRS, NPS will provide its findings to the Secretary of the Interior, who would then present a recommendation to the U.S. Congress. National park designations must come through an act of congress or a presidential proclamation.
Katko said it could be two or more years before a national park is established but noted NPS is expected to make a recommendation within one year of the end of the 60-day comment period. According to NPS, roughly one of every three completed resource studies have resulted in favorable recommendations over the past two decades.
Oswego Common Council Vice President Kevin Hill, R-3rd Ward, who also serves as president of the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum, also thanked Katko for his “unwavering commitment” to the national park effort and highlighted the history of the refugee shelter.
“We have something very unique here,” Hill said. “We have something that no other community in the United States can lay claim to — the only site of refugees from the Holocaust in what I understand is not just the United States, but all of the western hemisphere. It’s so significant, so important and it’s vital that we maintain this history, we preserve it and we protect it. And we make sure that generations to come understand their struggles.”
Hill said the story of the refugees “has to be told so we don’t repeat the history.”
For more information, or to comment, visit https://parkplanning.nps.gov/FortOntarioSRS. Comments can be made online by following the “Open for Comment” link on the above web address, by phone to Hilary Retseck at (303)-969-2425, or by mail to National Park Service, Denver Service Center – Planning Division, 12795 West Alameda Parkway, P.O. Box 25287, Denver CO 80225-0287, Project Manager: Hilary Retseck.
In addition to comments, concerns and suggestions, NPS said comments of particular interest to the study team would include individuals feelings about the potential for Fort Ontario to become a part of the national park system, stories and historic resources at the Fort Ontario site the agency should know about and any letters, diary entries, photographs, newspaper articles and other documents not publicly available that relate to the site.
A virtual public information session is scheduled for Sept. 15, and more information related to that meeting is expected in the coming weeks.