Fort McHenry expects large crowds during Sailabration

Tourism and LeisureTravelFort McHenryUnrest, Conflicts and WarNational ParksLocust PointFrancis Scott Key

Baltimore's Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, site of a key battle in the War of 1812 and birthplace of "The Star Spangled Banner," will be in the spotlight during many of the Star Spangled Sailabration events June 13 to 19.

Officials say they expect 20,000 or more people to visit the star-shaped fort on each of two days, June 16 and 17, for shows by the Blue Angels and for fireworks and a concert on the evening of June 16.

About 6,000 people are expected June 18 for ceremonies marking the 200th anniversary of America's declaration of war against the British, on June 18, 1812.

Another large crowd is expected at the fort on June 19 for the Parade of Sail, when tall ships and other vessels pass the fort as they leave Baltimore on the way to other ports.

By contrast, about 1,000 defenders were present at the fort when Marylanders fought off a British invasion in September 1814, a turning point in the war.

"I would say this the most complex event we've ever hosted here at Fort McHenry," said Vincent Vaise, the fort's chief of interpretation. "I think it will draw people from the entire Mid-Atlantic region. It's going to be a once-in-a-lifetime event."

The National Park Service prepared for the crowds by opening a $15 million visitors center in March 2011 and by upgrading exhibits and completing additional improvements to the fort and its grounds within the past year.

Vaise said approximately 250 park employees and volunteers will be on hand to assist visitors during the busiest days — up from the usual contingent of about a dozen people.

He said the fort and visitors center will actually be closed to the public on June 16 and 17, because the crowds are expected to be so large, but the grounds will be open and food vendors and a temporary gift shop will be set up on the property.

Built between 1798 and 1802 as part of the nation's defense preparations, the fort was named for James McHenry, a Baltimore resident who was secretary of war under Presidents George Washington and John Adams. Occupying a strategic site at the tip of the Locust Point peninsula, the fort withstood heavy shelling by a British fleet in September 1814. It was the only battle at the fort, and it inspired Maryland attorney Francis Scott Key to write "The Star Spangled Banner," a poem that became the national anthem in 1931.

The property served as a fort until 1912 and become a national park in 1925. It was designated a national monument and historic shrine in 1939, making it the only park in the country to have that double distinction.

Organizers of the Sailabration event are arranging for a shuttle service to transport people from M&T Bank Stadium to the fort on June 16 and 17, because traffic and parking will be restricted on Fort Avenue, the main road leading to the fort. Admission to the fort property is free and visitors are encouraged to bring supplies such as sunscreen, blankets, lawn chairs and bottled water.

Vaise said the fort property has the capacity to accommodate 20,000 to 25,000 people at a time. He added that he is optimistic that the events will give people a better appreciation of the fort and its role in history.

"We hope that all the attention will help people associate the American flag and the national anthem with Fort McHenry," he said.

ed.gunts@baltsun.com

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