More than 3,000 people streamed into Fort Sewall on Saturday to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the federal government turning the fort over to the town – and the completion of a $1.8 renovation project.
“People are so happy to be back at the fort,” said Larry Sands, chair of the Fort Sewall Oversight Committee, which led the renovation. “Kids are having fun, families are having fun. It’s perfect.”
The fort’s lower lawn was decked out with a large white tent and cocktail tables where people enjoyed Joe Frogger cookies and lemonade and listened to live fiddle music. On the upper level, members of Glover’s Regiment fired a cannon — a reproduction of a British six-pounder — several times throughout the day.
“What a wonderful celebration,” said Olivia Barry, as she and her boyfriend stood at the fort looking out at Marblehead Harbor. “We’re getting lost in the view right now. We had our first date here.”
People toured the inside of the fort, including officer’s quarters, a bunk room, commissary space and even a small dungeon where prisoners were once locked up.
“We walk to Fort Sewall a lot and I’ve always been intrigued about the inside,” said Francisco Urena of Marblehead, who brought his son Max, 7, and daughter Madison, 4, to walk through the rooms.
“The history of it is so impressive,” Urena said. “It’s wonderful that they’re preserving it.”
Ron and Joan Fox of Marblehead also came out to see the renovations. “It’s great that they made it more accessible,” said Ron. “They did an incredible job.”
Fort Sewall dates back to 1644 and is perhaps most famous for providing cover to the U.S.S. Constitution as it was chased outside Marblehead Harbor by British frigates in the War of 1812.
It served as an active fort through the Spanish American War. As recently as World War II, coast watchers used the fort to search for German submarines.
The Fort Sewall renovation started in 2018 with planning and fundraising. Town Meeting approved $750,000 in 2019 and supporters raised an additional $1+ million.
Sands said the renovation had four goals: accessibility, safety, preservation and education.
“Accessiblity was the key point of all of this,” he said. “We changed the grade of the path to the left when you walk into the fort to make it ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant. We removed the stairs at the upper section, so it’s all accessible by ramp.”
Crews also replaced all the stairways, installed new railings and renovated the restrooms. Eagle Scout Liam Conley and friends removed, restored and replaced all the benches. A new split rail fence was placed around the fort.
“The fort itself is restored to what it was like in the late 1700s leading up to the War of 1812,” Sands said.
Several dignitaries spoke at the celebration on June 18, including Congressman Seth Moulton, who grew up in Marblehead.
“I have always loved coming for Fort Sewall,” Moulton said. “We had our Christmas card picture taken here last year.” Sands later joked that maybe Moulton should have been charged a licensing fee for his family photo.
Former State Rep. Lori Ehrlich of Marblehead described what it’s like living in a town with so much history.
“One cannot grow up in Marblehead and attend our public schools without internalizing the proud role our town played in American history even before the nation was founded.
“It’s personally formative,” she continued. “We we live here, we interact with history on a daily basis.”
Select Board Chair Jackie Belf-Becker remarked on the mood of the crowd.
“Look around and all you see is people smiling… and I think it’s about time that happened again,” she said.
More to Come
There is still about $300,000 left in the project’s budget, which will be used for maintenance, to build furniture for the fort’s rooms and for a fort ranger program next summer.
More than 50,000 people visit Fort Sewall every year, Sands said.
To learn more about the renovation project, go to https://www.marblehead.org/fort-sewall-oversight-committee.
Leigh Blander is an experienced TV, radio and print journalist who has written hundreds of stories for local newspapers, including the Marblehead Reporter. She also works as a PR specialist.