Fort Ticonderoga: Interpreting History

“We have the restored fort, we have this history— the Fort Ticonderoga narrative. We have these collections and the landscape, but since I’ve been here it’s what we are doing with it.”

Since her arrival in 2010 Beth Hill, the president and CEO of Fort Ticonderoga, has turned a fading historic icon into a major destination with a national reputation. The numbers are illustrative. In 2010, the revenue at the gate was around $400,000. By 2017, the revenue exceeded $1.1 million for the second year in a row. Their operational budget has grown from $1.3 million to almost $3.6 million. The annual economic impact of Fort Ticonderoga including tourist spending, the Fort’s daily operations, tax revenue, and labor income and its effect on the local economy is over $12.1 million a year. What happened? How did this fading beauty transform itself into a major economic driver? According to Hill, “It needed vision and a lot of work.”

And a lot happened. The history of the Fort is wonderfully layered. With its strategic location, the area was first occupied by native nations, next it became a significant trading and military location, and then in 1755, the French built Fort Carillon. For the next three decades, this “Key to the Continent” played a major role in the fight for empire in the French and Indian War (or the Seven Years War) and the struggle for America’s independence a generation later.

It is also the story of the Pell family and their effort to preserve and recreate the Fort beginning with William Ferris Pell’s purchase of the property in 1820, and his erecting a fence around the ruins. In the beginning of the 20th century, Stephen and Sarah Pell restored the Fort and set about creating “the finest military museum in America”. They also put together the basis of the Fort’s collections, the largest on this side of the Atlantic. These also include an archeological collection of several hundred thousand items and the most extensive 18th century tool collection in America. Hill tells us why. “People like to think of wars being fought with guns, but you can ask any soldier and they are digging and building too. In as much as our liberty was won by guns, it was won by shovels too, building entrenchments and fortifications.”

The collections were a major reason Beth Hill was attracted to Ticonderoga and she has made sure they inform every aspect of their operations from preservation to battlefield maintenance, to tours. According to Hill, “What we deliver, from the youngest child to scholars, is rooted in that research, documentation, methodology, and historical analysis of our collections. It is fundamental to who we are.”

Using the collections as a foundation, Hill has substantially expanded the Pell family’s original vision. Access to and interpretation of the historic landscape now includes everything from the heights of Mount Defiance to the shores of Lake Champlain. Programs and experiences have expanded in countless areas from the historic trades to heritage breeds, museum education, horticulture, academic programs, collections management, publications, the battlefield hiking trail, boat tours, and dining on food provided by their gardens.

Increased documentation and access to the Fort’s collections has enabled the staff to better utilize its rich history as they develop new programs, exhibits, fellowships, and academic programs such as the Ticonderoga Teacher Institute. The growth of programs and better use of collections has put Fort Ticonderoga in a position to expand its facilities and educational reach to a growing list of academic partners and schools across the country. And, of course, future growth also translates into more economic impact and investment in the region.

Sometimes added economic impact is the result of simple decisions such as Ft. Ticonderoga’s buy one day’s ticket and get the next one free. The must see list at the Fort has expanded to the point where a visitor can’t fit everything offered in one day. Instead of just zipping through the town of Ticonderoga the Fort works at keeping visitors in the area longer. According to its visitor demographics, Fort Ticonderoga tourists also have money to spend. The average visitor has a household income of over $135,000 a year and half of them have at least a Master’s degree.

Hill attributes Fort Ticonderoga’s growth and success to an organizational culture that includes a willingness by the entire staff to try ideas, to learn, and to assess what visitors are saying, and respond to it. Before Hill arrived there was very little marketing. That soon changed with more data gathering and assessment of visitors. Soon there was a new brand with a look, specific colors, taglines, and a trademark. But without a good program, a souped up brand means little, so Ticonderoga has also changed what it offers every year by highlighting a specific part of its story. Hill said, “When you go to most historic places you feel like you’ve been there, you’ve done that. I’ve already been to Saratoga. I’ve heard the battlefield story or I’ve taken a Crown Point tour. I know that. What we have the opportunity to do here because we have attracted such incredible staff and have the collections and because the scope of our story is so epic, we are able to take a year and a particular military unit that was here and every year tell a different story.”

Besides keeping its programs fresh for visitors every year, the work behind the scenes also remains new and different. Every aspect changes from soldiers’ shoes to the uniforms, rations, accoutrements, and camp kitchen. It’s no surprise in the museum world that Ticonderoga’s culture, collections, and ever-changing programs have attracted a talented and growing staff. There are now 25 fulltime employees which expands to 80 during their “campaign” season from May through October.

One of the stars is the curator, Matthew Keagle, who specializes in material history which broadly translates into the study of historical objects. Keagle’s subspecialty is 18th century military uniforms and the colonial revolutionary period, but almost any area of the evolving art of warfare fascinates him. Keagle said he realized something unique and special was happening at the Fort by the caliber of the staff that Beth Hill was hiring, especially Stuart Lilie, the Vice President of Public History and Operations. As talent has attracted more talent, Fort Ticonderoga’s reputation has resulted in an increasing number of academic symposiums, graduate fellowships, teacher workshops and seminars, and lots of living history experiences and field trips for students.

For each visitor, whether they are a serious academic, a family on vacation, or a student on a field trip, Hill’s and Keagle’s enthusiasm for the Fort and its history is contagious. Hill believes the subject of history as it is taught in school has gotten a bad rap, “The past is what happened. History is how we piece it together and interpret and understand it. It is a wonderfully active process of discovery and rediscovery.”

So if you’re planning a trip to Fort Ticonderoga, take advantage of as many programs and experiences as you can fit into your time there. Beth Hill and her staff are determined to forge an on-going dialogue with you about our history as citizens and soldiers and connect the past to the present on topics that remain as important today as they were in the 18th century. Be ready for an exhilarating dive into the importance of our founding as a nation.