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Robert T. Barbuto hears it all the time. "I didn't even know there was a fort here," visitors to Fort Trumbull State Park in New London tell the supervisor of interpreters. Just opened, and still being restored and developed, Fort Trumbull is a largely undiscovered window to Connecticut's military past.
Though it is a coastal state park, it isn't a place to lay out your blanket and soak up the rays. Fort Trumbull is a park with a strong historical theme and expansive views of Groton, the Thames River and New London.
On a promontory once known in Algonquian dialect as Mamacock, meaning point of land bending like a hook, Fort Trumbull has an imposing presence that belies its relative obscurity. Perhaps that is because you have to get off I-95 to get a look at it.
The centerpiece of the park is, of course, a fort, which in various incarnations has occupied the site since the American Revolution. The fort that stands there today, the third on the site, was built between 1839 and 1849. It has massive walls of granite quarried from nearby Millstone Point in Waterford.
Beside it stands a relic of the post-Revolutionary period, a blockhouse built in 1796. The blockhouse was meant to stand alone, as it does today, a mini-fort that seems as if it would be impossible for an enemy to enter. That was the point.
The main fort is much larger, five-sided, and includes quarters for officers and enlisted men, cannons and a parapet with commanding views. Much of the parapet is buttressed with earth and grass, the better to absorb the impact of cannon balls.
It was built in the Egyptian revival style of huge, granite blocks. Frances M. Caulkins, author of the highly regarded "History of New London," called it "simple, massive, and yet elegant in form and finish." Restoration work, still ongoing, highlights various periods of its use. Exhibits within the fort explain how the fort was used differently over the generations.
The park grounds opened temporarily last year for OpSail2000, the tall-ships gathering, but it was only last month that the fort itself was opened for visits. So far, attendance is running only about 100 people a day, many of them military history buffs.
"Fort fans, I call them," said Barbuto. Guided tours are offered Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon until Labor Day.
Fort Trumbull played a major role in one of the most famous Revolutionary War battles in Connecticut, traitor Benedict Arnold's attack on New London and Groton in 1781. The New London area was guarded by two forts, Fort Trumbull on the New London side and Fort Griswold on the Groton side of the Thames.
Arnold's men attacked both forts, and Fort Trumbull, occupied by only 23 men, fell quickly. The patriots retreated to Fort Griswold, which also fell, though the British took heavy losses.
After the battle, the British set New London afire, destroying almost every building in town.
Though forts became an anachronism by the 20th century, Fort Trumbull's history as a military installation continued until recent years.
Exhibits within the fort explain how the fort was for a time the nation's first Coast Guard Academy, a top-secret submarine research facility during World War I and II, briefly a University of Connecticut campus during the post-World War II boom years and, during the Cold War, a U.S. Navy Underwater Sound Laboratory.
A visitors center that will include a gift shop is still under construction in what was the officer's barracks at the fort, a stone building built in 1829-30. That center will open by Memorial Day. A temporary visitors center with exhibits relating to the fort is open in the meantime.
The park grounds do not include picnic tables, but picnicking is encouraged. Bring a blanket, spread it on the grass and enjoy the views of the river. Benches along walkways can also be used.
The park includes what amounts to a luxury-class fishing pier, complete with running water to wash your hands and a railing with holes that accommodate fishing poles. It juts out 556 feet into the Thames and offers access to striped bass and bluefish. Plans for the future include a dock for visitors and perhaps water taxis to reach the park by water.