Monday, December 05, 2005

 

In Fort Edward, there's digging ahead of the dredging

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The Post Star
By Bonnie Naumann
November 02, 2005

Team locates historic artifacts threatened by project

FORT EDWARD -- They are using stone tools, glass bottles, coins and pipes as weapons.

Fort Edward officials weren't able to defeat the project to dredge PCBs from the Hudson River, but they are fighting to protect their history.

General Electric Co., which has been asked by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to foot the bill for the largest project in national history, has commissioned archaeological investigations that will continue through next week.

Those digs revealed what local officials, historians and archaeologists suspected all along: The river wasn't just a hot spot for PCBs, it is a hot spot for archaeological artifacts ranging from Native American stone tools to 18th-century war weaponry.

The public comment period for the first phase of the project ends Dec. 14, so officials are now under the gun to negotiate the fate of the artifacts.

A recent set of digs off Old Fort Road revealed artifacts are buried right up to the edge of the water. So town officials are hoping to negotiate parameters for dredging along the river banks that won't disturb artifacts.

"If dredging were to destabilize the bank, the ground and the artifacts in it could tumble into the river," said Jeffrey Harbison, an archaeologist from GE-contracted URS Corp. from Burlington, N.J.

On Thursday, Harbison and an archaeologist crew worked on three dig pits in the backyard of a home owned by Town Board member Neal Orsini.

"I didn't know this, but apparently different-colored dirt excites archaeologists," Orsini joked at a Tuesday night citizens' committee meeting.

Harbison pointed into a pit Thursday and explained the layers' coloring.

Gray layers were ash, dumped by past residents or industry. Lighter layers were deposits from events like flooding or dumping. Some of the layers were rich with artifacts from modern times back to prehistoric times. Harbison held up a double-edged stone cutting tool he guessed was as much as 6,000 years old.

"The things they are finding aren't a surprise, but it feels good that they are verifying on the ground what we suspected would always be there," said archaeologist David Starbuck of Chestertown.

At the beginning of the summer, GE did test borings and took sonar readings of the river, which revealed several ship wrecks and other artifacts. Then, town officials encouraged GE to investigate on the ground and in the river.

"In the months ahead, the compromises that have to be worked out will involve in some cases going around sites or completely taking everything out or preserving pieces of items," said Starbuck.

Town officials will have to negotiate the preservation of artifacts found on the river bottom.

Recent dives revealed numerous artifacts, including 18th-century glass bottles that were produced in Fort Edward, and several boats. One of the boats is believed to be a cement barge, Pulver said. Divers brought up items like bottles that were lying on the surface. But because the soil is contaminated with PCBs, they couldn't free items that were buried or would disturb soil.

Preserving submerged boats, or pieces of them, will be an expensive challenge.

It would be a million-dollar project and require a state-of-the-art storage facility unparalleled in the state, Starbuck said. The state's museum in Albany doesn't have room for such things, said Rogers Island Visitors Center Manager Eileen Hannay.

On Tuesday, the Town Board voted to hire an architect for $12,000 to create a plan for an expansion of the Visitors Center to house such artifacts, Pulver said. It hasn't been determined if that structure would connect to the existing structure or be built where two homes currently stand along Route 197, Orsini said.

Some of the items found on recent digs could be considered for the National Historic Registry, but all deserve to be preserved locally, Pulver said. The town recently applied for several state grants totalling $350,000 to create such a facility.

As for the remainder of the cost of a million-dollar project, Pulver said she couldn't be specific at this time, but said it would be part of the total picture of dredging in Fort Edward.

Overall, the dredging is enabling the town to do things that wouldn't otherwise be possible, she said.

"It will give us the opportunity to preserve that history and to curate it so generations will be able to come and study the history of Fort Edward," Pulver said.


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