Residents join together to save Fort Bayard Park

by Valerie Blair
Special to The Gazette

July 5, 2000

One can still see where children once played baseball on the field in Fort Bayard Park.

Still visible are the paths where boys and girls ran the bases with a fervor unmatched by even the great Joltin' Joe DiMaggio -- first, second, third, and on the lucky days, home. Home plate and a decrepit backstop that sways in the breeze are about all that is left of the playing field.

All around the park it is apparent that time has taken its toll.

Brown, weathered picnic tables are strewn about in a nonsensical manner. Vines engulf the trunks of old trees, and trash hangs from an occasional branch.

One would never guess from the look of the park that it was once the site of one of many forts in a complex defense system that formed a circle around Washington, D.C., and kept the capital secure during the Civil War.

But there is hope for the 6.5-acre national park that sits at the corner of River Road and Western Avenue, just inside the District. Young trees dot the park, and new mulch covers the playground, courtesy of concerned residents.

"We are trying to make some improvements on the park," said Maria Alonso-Vasquez of the District, who with other Washington and Montgomery County residents, have formed Friends of Fort Bayard, a neighborhood group focused on restoring the park.

"The park is part of our community," she said. "...The people that are interested in the park are those that have children, those that walk their dogs there and some people that are simply interested in landscaping."

At the height of the Civil War, 68 forts were built in Washington, D.C. to defend the Union capital against invading Confederate armies. According to the National Park Service, Washington was the most heavily defended location in the Western Hemisphere in 1863. The site for Fort Bayard was chosen because it overlooks River Road, a historically important route into the capital from the north.

Ali Baltrus, a National Park Service ranger, said Fort Bayard and others nearby "were really the last line of defense."

Today most of the forts have vanished, save a few significant ones such as Fort Stevens in Northeast Washington. Like Fort Bayard, many sites that were once Civil War forts have been turned into national parks, and are maintained by the National Park Service.

Many of these forts-turned-parks, such as Fort Reno, Fort Totten and Fort Slocum, are in residential areas, and have been eclipsed by the monolithic historical monuments farther downtown.

Groups like Friends of Fort Bayard have taken it upon themselves to keep the smaller historical sites looking good.

Friends of Fort Bayard has a 15-member board, and is looking for more volunteers from the neighborhood. It is also looking to raise money from organizations and individuals to transform the park into an attractive and safe area.

The group received $1,000 in December from the Advisory Neighborhood Council, a Washington neighborhood group, and $100 from Western Avenue Citizens Association to begin cleaning the park.

Most of the members of Friends of Fort Bayard are parents who want the park to be accessible to their children.

"There is a lot of interest in the playground because there are a lot of little children in the neighborhood," Alonso-Vasquez said.

The playground equipment in the park is old and falling apart, Alonso-Vasquez said. Not only is the playground equipment insufficient, but there are few benches and picnic tables.

Friends of Fort Bayard teamed up with the National Park Service to allow the group plant trees and clear areas of the park.

"We love it when the community gets involved," Baltrus said. "Because we are in a city, many of the parks border on neighborhoods so it's really important to maintain [the parks]."

Friends of Fort Bayard held a "spruce up" day June 10 to begin restoring the park. Twenty-five residents and a park ranger cleared out underbrush, weeds and dead branches.

Alonso-Vasquez said group members brought dogwood trees and wanted to plant some wild flowers, but decided to wait until the fall, at which time they also hope to have raised enough money to install new playground equipment, benches and picnic tables.

Friends of Fort Bayard meets the third Saturday of the month at Tenleytown Public Library from 4-5 p.m. For information, call Maria Alonso-Vasquez.