Saturday, January 4, 2003

Neglect endangers many Ohio historic sites

By James Hannah
The Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ohio - It was at this tiny river village that the Civil War came to Ohio.

On the morning of July 19, 1863, Union troops waged a four-hour running battle on a foggy Ohio River bend against Confederate Gen. John Morgan, who had cut a swath of destruction through Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio.

Today, the state's only Civil War battlefield is as ghostly as the battle itself, with little to designate its historic significance.

Farmhouses and trailers dot the rolling southeast Ohio (Meigs County) bottomland that runs up against the river. A four-acre park with a cobblestone monument and green weathered bronze plaque mark the 1,500-acre battlefield known as Buffington Island. Nearby are a shelter, picnic tables, a lone water pump and a few rusting grills and trash cans.

A gravel company is poised to excavate some of the battlefield, named by the Washington-based Civil War Preservation Trust as among the nation's top 25 most endangered Civil War battlefields.

As Ohio prepares to celebrate its 200th year of statehood, pieces of its heritage have been lost or are in danger of vanishing. The Ohio Associated Press has profiled some of the most notable:
Today: History lost to time, neglect.
Monday: Hidden cemeteries are link to Ohio's settlers. Also, American Indian mounds have been lost with growth.
Tuesday: Lands are being restored after generations of use, abuse.
Wednesday: Ohio's black history fading from landscape.
Thursday: A quiz that takes a fun look at Ohio history.
Buffington Island
Johnson's Island
Civil War Preservation Trust
Ohio Bicentennial
Ohio Historical Society
"I'm just sick, said Keith Ashley, a member of the Ohio Department of Sons of Union Veterans. "I'm seeing history destroyed."

Civil War sites, Underground Railroad stops, pioneer settlements, cemeteries, farmsteads, school buildings and even towns have vanished or are in danger of disappearing as Ohio prepares to celebrate its bicentennial. Neglect, lack of financing and outright disregard have been to blame, historians say.

"We just lose a part of us," said Enquirer reporter and author Randy McNutt, who has written about Ohio and its history.

Housing and commercial developments have carved up some sites. Many historical structures are crumbling.

State Sen. Michael Shoemaker, a Bourneville Democrat, said little government money is available to preserve Ohio's historical sites.

"That's a disgrace to all of us that we don't try to do that," Mr. Shoemaker said.

Adding markers

The Ohio Bicentennial Commission wants to make the public more aware of historic sites by placing more markers. When the commission got involved in the program in 1998, there were 250 markers. Now there are 400, with 300 more expected to go up by the end of 2003.

The brown, cast-metal markers describe the historical significance of the sites, from Thomas Edison's birthplace in Erie County to the Alligator Mound in Licking County, a giant earthen sculpture built between 800 and 1200 B.C.

"One of our main missions is to bring Ohio historical sites back to life with our markers," said commission spokesman Fred Stratmann. "It's something that's been neglected in the state over the years."

Retired teacher Sandra Starner helped start a letter-writing campaign that resulted a marker being installed in 2000 at Sheep Pen Lock near Logan in southeast Ohio.

The lock, an offshoot of the Ohio & Erie Canal, was built in 1843 and opened up commerce by enabling farmers to get their produce to market. The unmarked lock had become a dump, where people left old couches, carpets and refrigerators. Now, several hundred people visit the site each month, Ms. Starner said.

Saving some sites has fallen to preservationists and history buffs, who have had to go begging.

The Buffington Island Battlefield Group has raised about $150,000 to buy easements it hopes will keep 150 to 175 acres of the battlefield from being developed. The group is looking for the remains of the 55 or so soldiers thought to have been killed there.

Experts hired by the group have flown over the battlefield using thermal-imaging equipment to detect graves and have pinpointed a spot thought to have up to 35 graves.

Some of the battlefield site is owned by the Shelly Co., which plans to mine it for gravel. Excavation has not begun. Opponents say the mining will mar the landscape, leaving deep holes that will eventually fill with water.

Phone calls and e-mail messages to Shelly and its parent company seeking comment were not returned.

Trustee Edd Sharp said he is disappointed that the state hasn't done more to preserve its only Civil War battlefield.

"It's shameful. They want to make a gravel pit out of it," Mr. Sharp said.

Mr. Shoemaker, who represents the district, said it was difficult to justify spending a lot of tax money to preserve all of a site that is less historically significant than Gettysburg or Antietam.

"It was more of a cavalry charge rather than a concentrated on-site battle," he said.

Jim Campi, spokesman for the Civil War Preservation Trust, said Buffington Island marked a turning point.

"Morgan was brought to bay, and his invasion of Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio finally stopped," Mr. Campi said. "It's a very important site for telling the role of cavalry in the Civil War."

In 1999, an agreement was reached between Shelly and the Ohio Historic Preservation Office under which Shelly agreed not to disturb 40 acres where some of the bloodiest fighting is likely to have occurred.

Franco Ruffini, deputy state historic preservation officer, said the company also agreed to excavate a few acres at a time and survey each acre for artifacts prior to digging. Any artifacts that are recovered will be saved at a museum or other facility, he said.

"That doesn't preserve the battlefield. But that was about as good as we could do," Mr. Ruffini said.

At Johnson's Island in Sandusky Bay, where more than 10,000 Confederate soldiers were imprisoned during the Civil War, efforts to preserve the site also have fallen on private shoulders.

"Thousands of officers from every major battle ended up at Johnson's Island," said David Bush, an archaeologist and chairman of the Friends and Descendants of Johnson's Island. "When I travel in the South and talk about it, everyone knows about it. But it's not a very appreciated site up here."

Some of the property has been destroyed by quarry operations and some gobbled up by housing.

To try to protect what's left of the prison compound and fortifications, the Johnson's Island group has purchased 17.1 acres of the 300-acre island. The group has three years to raise $315,000 to pay off the loan.

"It hasn't been easy thus far," Mr. Bush said. "But I'm really optimistic we can do this."

Small towns gone

Civil War sites are not Ohio's only endangered history.

Mr. Ruffini said American Indian sites and farmsteads that defined Ohio's agricultural history have been consumed by urban sprawl. Even many of Ohio's villages and towns have suffered the ravages of time and indifference.

When Mr. McNutt stumbled across a 1913 map of Ohio, he was struck by the number of small towns that no longer existed. From 1991 to 1999, he drove around the state to investigate and wrote a book called Ghosts: Ohio's Haunted Landscapes, Lost Arts and Forgotten Places.

Mr. McNutt said it can be hard to save small towns but there is a steep cost for failing to do so.

"We lose people's lives, their stories," Mr. McNutt said. "A lot of this stuff is forgotten."

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