Decaying buildings with broken-out windows, the unrelenting encroachment of scrub and weeds, and vines advancing on time-worn walls. That was the scene at David's Island in 2005. "It looks like a disaster movie could be filmed here;' said Nancy Brighton, lead environmental archaeologist at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New York District. She looked in awe as she walked around. "It's surreal. It looks as if everyone just picked up and left."
Brighton was describing the abandoned remains of Fort Slocum, a former U.S. military base on David's Island, an otherwise uninhabited 80-acre enclave, about half a mile off the coast of New Rochelle, N.Y., in Long Island Sound. At the request of the City of New Rochelle--which now owns the island and plans to make it accessible to the public--the Corps began preparation for demolishing 93 structures, clearing debris, and creating open space that will be safe for visitors.
David's Island has a rich and diverse history. In 1867 Fort Slocum was established there at the site of the Civil War-era DeCamp General Hospital. Since then, it has functioned in various military incarnations: an Artillery Corps post, a general recruiting depot, an artillery mortar post, and a rehabilitation center.
During World War II, the fort was the most active Army recruitment center in the United States. It served as a staging area for troops heading overseas during both world wars. For several years, the fort was even used by the U.S. Air Force and renamed Slocum Air Force Base.
Fort Slocum's last call to service came in the 1960s, when it functioned as a missile command base. Since the facility closed in 1965, David's Island has been deserted.
Over the years, the island has been eyed as a possible site for a power plant. More than a mile of beach made it a tempting location for the proposed development of luxury condos. But more recently, interest in its wide variety of marine life and birds that have found sanctuary there has prompted city officials to consider turning the island into a public park and nature preserve.
"It's easy to say that this was a simple project; all we were doing was demolishing buildings. Just bring out the equipment, and start banging away," says Gregory Goepfert, Corps project manager. "But it was more than that. There was great interest in preserving some of the island's wealth of history."
The first task, however, was to deal with another kind of preservation: protecting a large nest of osprey. In New York state, the birds' population has declined in the past and is making a slow recovery. The project team carefully removed the family nest from the island's pier and relocated it further inland, away from the noise and danger of construction.
After the birds were at a safe distance, Goepfert--with assistance from Brighton and project contractor TetraTech--performed extensive historical research on each of the 93 structures, including digging up historical data, taking photos, and performing archaeological studies. …