Fort Miles to unveil projects this spring

Discovery of unexploded ordnance brings work to halt temporarily
January 18, 2019

The new year is shaping up to be a major one for Fort Miles.

By the end of April, the Fort Miles Historical Association and Delaware State Parks will unveil a $1 million project that includes a new road and a 103-space parking lot for the fort and its museum in the underground Battery 519.

In addition, work is progressing on a special-events venue overlooking the Atlantic Ocean on top of the 80-foot dune at Battery 519 accessible only to paying museum or special-events guests. “It's a very unique spot on the East Coast,” said association member Mark Chura, who is coordinating the projects. “It's the highest point between Cape Cod, Mass., and Kill Devil Hills, N.C.”

Ordnance unearthed in sand

Workers had a major surprise during site work on the parking lot when a cache of unexploded shells was unearthed in the sand. Then a few days later, another cache was found nearby by a hiker. “That brought everything to a halt,” said Gary Wray, association president. He said the discoveries set into motion an established protocol involving the Delaware State Police bomb squad and the U.S. Army Corps shutting down work on the Fort Miles project. “The contractor moved to another job, but we expect them back next week,” Wray said.

He said when the fort was decommissioned following World War II soldiers were told to bury ordnance in the sand. In addition, while digging, the work crew hit active water lines left over from a former vacation mobile home for military families stationed at Fort Meade, Md. “No one knew the pipes were there,” Chura said. “Now we've cleaned that up and are starting with a clean slate.”

New special events venue

On the east side of the museum – where a 16-inch gun was once housed – a new floor-to-ceiling glass wall will replace a temporary wood wall constructed by the association's Bunker Busters volunteers. Indoors, the former gun turret area will be transformed into a 1,500-square-foot indoor special-events space with new audiovisual equipment, and heating and air-conditioning systems.

Outdoors, a two-level 2,500-square-foot concrete pad site provides space for a variety of events, Chura said. “There could be concerts, programs or rentals with or without tents,” he said. A 500-square-foot platform with a fire pit is also part of the plans. Low-level lighting will be installed to allow nighttime events.

Wray said the Fort Miles Historical Association will manage, and revenue will go to the museum.

More parking needed

Wray said there are peak times during the summer when the state park is closed because all parking lots are filled. “Parking is critical because there is not enough of it,” he said. The current Fort Miles parking lot has 26 spaces.

Wray said there will be a charge to park in the new lot that has yet to be determined. Proceeds will be split between the state park and the association. The orientation building at the edge of the parking area will get a facelift as well, Wray said.

Chura said the parking lot will be 8 inches of gravel that could possibly be paved in the future. The association plans to have a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the projects during its annual living history weekend on Saturday, April 27.

Most of the funding for the projects came from a $600,000 Longwood Foundation grant, which was supplemented by state funds and in-kind donations.

Trail access closed only during special events

Plans for an overlook events venue as part of the Fort Miles Museum could occasionally result in closing the popular trail that goes nearly to the top of the dune at Battery 519. The trail will be closed to the public, but only during special events such as weddings, said Eric Dawson, Delaware State Parks operations administrator. He said a new observation deck will be constructed off the trail as an additional overlook when events are taking place. “It's the taxpayers' $1 million view,” he said.

A gate will be installed about three-quarters of the way up the trail, but it would only be closed during special events.

Mark Chura, the Fort Miles Historical Association member coordinating the venue project, said the challenge is how Delaware State Parks and Fort Miles will manage access. “We are working through the details how to hold events and still allow the public to have access to the point,” he said.

He said the venue will offer an expanded range of events to benefit the public, from concerts to parks programming, as well as provide rental space for events such as weddings. Revenue from rentals will be dedicated to the Fort Miles Museum.
A venue was envisioned 15 years ago by association founders President Gary Wary and the late Lee Jennings. “We wanted to maximize the place with something on the east side,” Wray said. “I'm stunned by how nice it is.”