To Preserve or to Pave Over History

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History is what we choose to remember, and there have been many reasons not to remember too much about the Fishkill Encampment and Supply Depot, a sprawling military city that became the most important northern supply center during the Revolutionary War.

No stirring battle was won there. Life was brutish and often short, a place of smallpox, frostbite and mutiny, where wounded soldiers had limbs sawed off and covered with tar, where, as one contemporary account put it, soldiers “patched their clothes until patches and clothing both gave out and the garments dropped from their bodies,” where hundreds, perhaps well over a thousand, were buried in unmarked graves.

No grand building was left behind. And over time the lure of commerce and utility — the Dutchess Mall on one side of Route 9, a Hess gas station and a Mexican cafe on the other, a pump station up the road — meant more than the hoarse whispers of history.

The Fishkill site’s story is not entirely lost. Historians have chronicled its place in the revolutionary effort, but it has been described as “the last of the important Revolutionary War sites yet to be properly explored, studied and preserved.” It became a place where food, grain, clothes and ammunition were stored in more than 10 buildings, with a prison, a hospital, bakeries, blacksmiths, stables and workshops for the manufacture of almost everything the troops needed.

Almost none of it remains, save for the Van Wyck Homestead, an early-18th-century Dutch Colonial house that served as the depot headquarters and now functions as a museum in the shadow of Interstate 84.

Some critics, local historical society members who formed Fishkill Historical Focus to lobby for the preservation of the site, say the town chose commerce over history. “So many local people have no idea what they have here because the town has been so intent on covering the entire town in blacktop,” said Mara Farrell of Fishkill Historical Focus. “The history is inconvenient.”

BUT the town supervisor, Joan A. Pagones, said that Fishkill did not have the ability to arbitrarily turn down appropriate development. And some seem to think that what’s lost is lost. The latest proposal for the site was for a 50,000-square-foot retail and restaurant center.

But these days, no one, including the site’s developer, Scott Jerutis, expects that to materialize. With the recession, little is being built. And advances in ground-penetrating radar have led to the discovery of more than 100 graves in a corner of the site, and there could be many more. Paving over history is one thing; paving over graves is another. The State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation is encouraging the town to protect the site, saying the opportunity to preserve it is unlikely to come again.

Maybe before the next strip center or retail plaza is proposed, someone will. But for now and the foreseeable future, the site figures to sit — revolutionary ghosts underground, mall across the street, traffic zipping up and down Route 9 — not a preserved monument, but not a paved-over memory either.

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