For Immediate Release
ALBANY, N.Y. (1/27/14) — A proposed facility to heat crude oil at the Port of Albany could forever destroy “Fort Nassau,” North America’s oldest Dutch habitation built in January, 1614, say historians. But the structure could be saved, if the project is handled correctly.
“This is probably the most important European archaeological site in North America,” said historian, author and archaeologist Don Rittner. “Right now in January, 400 years ago, the Dutch were building Fort Nassau. This structure represents the first real presence of the Dutch in North America, but there is a chance it could be destroyed. The timing is amazing.”
Fort Nassau was constructed during a 1613 trading expedition for the Amsterdam Van Tweenhysen Company, commanded by Captain Adriaen Block. In January 1614, Block remained in New York Bay but sent Hedrick Christiaensen and his crew up the Hudson River (then called the “North River”) to build a trading post, named Fort Nassau.
The fort was located on “Castle Island,” which has since gone by several other names, and was later buried under silt and earth. Fort Nassau became the focal point for the North American fur trade in the Northeast, where the Dutch and indigenous Mohicans traded goods for fur. It also became the staging point for expeditions to seek out mineral deposits and other natural resources for exploitation.
After several washouts by the Hudson River spring floods, and a final severe flood in 1617, the Dutch moved on to the mainland and built Fort Orange, which in 1970 was partially excavated before an exit from I-787 was placed on top of it.
Today, Global Companies plans to build a facility to heat crude oil at the Port of Albany in the general vicinity of where Albany historian and cartographic sleuth John Wolcott has determined that the original Fort Nassau is located. Wolcott was responsible for finding the remains of the original Fort Orange in the early 1970s.
“John Wolcott is very good at reading old maps, old measurements, old triangulations,” Rittner said. “If John tells you something’s in the ground, I’ll put money on it.”
Wolcott has been searching for the remains of Fort Nassau for 50 years. He is now confident that he knows the precise location of the structure. And he does not want to see Albany repeat the same mistake it made with Fort Orange when it buried the colonial fort beneath a highway exit.
“That was so stressing and hurtful to me, personally and publicly,” Wolcott said of the loss of Fort Orange. “Fort Nassau wasn’t a permanent settlement, but it was the beginning of it all here in the Northeast. Let’s finally save one.”
Wolcott is not the only historian who believes Fort Nassau is located on the site of the planned boiler plant. Historian Shirley Dunn, former curator of Fort Crailo in Rensselaer and author of “The Mohicans and Their Land 1609-1730,” published proof of the general whereabouts of Fort Nassau.
“One key to finding the general location of Fort Nassau is a map made by Johannes Vingboons, one of the most masterful cartographers of his time,” Wolcott said. “Shirley Dunn looked at the original map, which was probably made in 1626, and there’s a little smudge at the north end of the island just before you come up to Fort Orange. She enlarged the smudge and found it to be a ruined building which she determined to be Fort Nassau.”
Wolcott also found further verification of the fort’s location by reinterpreting the latitude provided by the historical writer Joannes de Laet. (The latitude reading reported by de Laet must be adjusted for problems caused by being inland using instruments of that time, Wolcott said.)
Based on a contemporary record, Wolcott says the dimensions of Fort Nassau are 58 feet across the quadrangle, surrounded by an 18-foot moat. That poses higher probability of finding something.
ABOUT THE PROPOSED PLANT
Global Companies, a unit of Global Partners, based in Waltham, Mass., plans to build a 2,600-square-foot facility at the port’s rail yard to heat crude as it is pumped out of rail cars and into storage tanks. The oil will then be shipped out on barges headed downriver toward refineries on the east coast. Global’s application does not specify what kind oil would be heated, but many worry it will be volatile tar sands from Canada.
The proposed boiler plant will have to be reviewed by the Albany Planning Board, and will be subject to an archaeological review. If handled correctly, with sensitivity to the historical importance of this structure, a compromise could be achieved that would save the fort, Rittner said.
“If they find this fort, you can preserve it,” Rittner said. “You can design the plant so that it incorporates the fort into the site plan. You can display any artifacts in a structure on site, or move them to the museum. But you can also expose part of the fort for the public to go see. This is located in a place that is easily accessible to the public and near a public park.”
Wolcott and Rittner are 100 percent opposed to anything being constructed over the ruins of the fort if they are found.
The next planning board meeting is scheduled for Feb. 20, but so far the proposed boiler plant does not yet appear on the agenda. That means there’s still time for the City of Albany to advocate for the best possible outcome, Rittner said.
MAJOR HERITAGE TOURISM DOLLARS AT STAKE
“Heritage tourism is one of the biggest industries in America. Heritage tourists stay an extra day or two and spend up to $600 more than average tourists. The stats are there. The economy is there. And we do next to nothing to promote our heritage in this region,” Rittner said. “Gettysburg rakes in more money in heritage tourism than all of the Capital District sites combined, and all they have is a Civil War Battlefield – we have 400 years of history here. What we do instead is find the sites and put parking lots on top of them. Then the politicians complain: ‘I don’t know why we don’t get tourists here.’ My response is: ‘Well we’ve got plenty of places for them park. But what they want to see is underneath.’”
Don Rittner was the City Archaeologist for Albany from 1973 to 1979, the first position of its kind in the United States, during the Erastus Corning II administration.
The City Charter for Albany calls for a City Archaeologist to “advise the Mayor, the Common Council, the Historic Resources Commission, the Planning Board, the Board of Zoning Appeals, the Commissioner of Public Safety the Division of Building and Codes, the Engineering Department, and the Planning Department on archaeological matters in the City of Albany,” — Section 7. Section 42-360(A) of Part 35 (Office of the City Archaeologist) of Chapter 42 of the Code of the City of Albany.
The city budget has annually allocated $55,000 for the position, but that position has been unfilled for years.
“Albany is opening itself up to major lawsuits,” Rittner said, with respect to archaeological sites. “But lawsuits can’t bring back what is destroyed. We must be sure this site is preserved, now.”
CALL TO ACTION
Concerned citizens from any area are encouraged to write a letter to the city planning board at:
The Department of Development & Planning
21 Lodge Street Albany, NY 12207
P: (518) 434-2532 | F: (518) 434-9846
For more information on Fort Nassau and the proposed boiler plant, read Don Rittner’s Times Union Blog posts:
- “Boiling plant threatens the most important historic archeological site in the Northeast United States,” (Jan. 26, 2014)
- “North Dakota’s Crude Trick on Albany” (Jan. 19, 2014)
HIGH RESOLUTION IMAGES
For historical maps and details showing Fort Nassau, visit: