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Old Swivel Rails

Most people have been to the monuments and museums in Washington, D.C. Some people even go off the beaten path to places like DuPont Circle or the National Cathedral for the majestic architecture. Recently Arthur Prelle visited Fort Washington, a little know historical site on the Potomac River outside the beltway and south of the District of Columbia. The fort was built by Pierre L’Enfant, a Frenchman that was largely responsible for the design and street planning of the District of Columbia. The fort was used for two centuries and one can see the development of military technology sitting side by side at the fort. Some of the canons were even shipped to France for use as railroad artillery during World War I. Arthur has a great-great-grandfather, Louis Prelle, whom fought in Company L of the Connecticut Heavy Artillery division for the Civil War. Thus Arthur found it fascinating to see how the fort was specially designed to defend the capital from traffic coming up the Potomac River.

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A Fort Wall

Two layers of triangular bastions produced overlapping fields of cannon and musket fire. Guns were located both within the walls and on the top parapet. This design remained largely unchanged through the Civil War.

One of the most interesting things about Fort Washington is that it was continuously expanded over the 19th and early 20th centuries, and you can see progressive generations of military hardware side by side. Ironclad battleship design steamed ahead in the 1870s and 1880s, and Secretary of War William Endicott lobbied for the construction of a new system of coastal defenses. In 1890 a mining casemate was added alongside the old masonry fort. Technicians inside this reinforced bunker could electronically fire off underwater mines that were strung out across the Potomac. 

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Some Later Improvements

The fort’s offensive armament also increased during this period. New 12-inch mortars at Battery Meigs could direct plunging fire into the thinly armored decks of modern battleships. The concrete platforms in front of the old fort mounted direct fire cannons on disappearing carriages. Many of these modern cannons were later removed and shipped to France for use as railroad artillery during World War I.

In 1939 the obsolete and denuded fort was transferred to the Department of the Interior, which wanted to redevelop it as a park. The plans were slowed down by World War II, when the Department of War temporarily put the fort back into service. After 1946, the temporary World War-era administrative buildings were torn down and expanded visitor facilities. Today you can wander around the old fort and take a trip through Washington history.