Portsmouth's Fort Butts eyed for museum

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PORTSMOUTH — These days Fort Butts may be better known as the spot where high school students go to settle their differences, but a nonprofit marine archaeology group says there may be gold in that hill.

A strategic encampment during the Battle of Rhode Island in the Revolutionary War, Fort Butts is being proposed by The Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project (RIMAP) as the site for a maritime museum and major archeological research facility

“We could put this anywhere in the state, but Fort Butts is our first choice," said Kathy Abbass, director of RIMAP, which hosted a meeting at Town Hall Saturday before taking about 10 people on a tour of the hill, just north of the high school.

Although the museum is another six years away if it happens at all, Ms. Abbass said it would attract tourists to our little town and be "a pretty good deal" for Portsmouth.

"That kind of museum would be part of that string of pearls that starts in New Bedford" and continues to Newport, she said. "It will create an economic engine for the state.”

Added Elliott Caldwell, president of RIMAP's board, "It would be a tremendous boon to Portsmouth to be the location of a major archeological lab."

What's a Revolutionary War defense earthwork have to do with the sea? Simple, says RIMAP.

"We're studying war through Naval history. Marine archeology is not just shipwrecks," said Ms. Abbass, who said RIMAP favors Fort Butts for a museum because it's "the most important Revolutionary War fort and the largest in Southeastern New England."

The genesis of RIMAP's idea came in 1999, when RIMAP discovered evidence that the Lord Sandwich transport — one of many ships sunk by the British in Newport Harbor in 1778 — was formerly known as Capt. James Cook's HMS Endeavour, which carried Capt. Cook, his crew and scientists around the world in 1768-1771.

Capt. Cook is among history's most famous naval explorers. His Endeavour, a British Royal Navy research vessel, surveyed the eastern coast of Australia, leading to the British claim and colonization of that continent. The ship is revered by Australians the same way the Mayflower is treasured by those interested in early New England history, according to RIMAP.

The news that the ship was found in local waters didn't make local headlines back in 1999, according to Ms. Abbass.

"I was on Australian television before any of the local (media) got it," she said. "When the announcement was made about that historical relationship and the fact that we might be able to find that particular shipwreck, it put Rhode Island’s maritime history on an international platform that nothing ever else did. Nothing we did ever put us on Australian television.”

RIMAP presented its plan for Fort Butts to a previous Town Council, which approved the plan in concept "but wanted to see the numbers," said Ms. Abbass, who made it clear to the council that there were probably no local funds to help build the museum. Although the Battle of Rhode Island sites are important, they're "competing with Valley Forge and places like that," she said.

What would make fund-raising easier, however, is RIMAP identifying which of the sunken ships in Newport Harbor is the Endeavour, which she said carried "the most famous navigator/explorer in the history of the world." That could make a museum at Fort Butts a popular destination for international tourists, she said.

"My smarmy statement is: I love you Newport mansions and 18th century buildings, but people from Australia are not going to come here for that," said Ms. Abbass. "Australians consider James Cook ... their founding father."

Town Council member David Gleason, who attended Saturday's meeting and tour, said he was unfamiliar with RIMAP's work and wasn't aware that the Endeavour was in Newport Harbor. Mr. Gleason said while he was speaking for himself, he supports the idea of locating the museum and lab at Fort Butts and wants to see the council revisit the matter soon.

Butts Hill location

The proposed museum's size has not yet been determined, although Ms. Abbass indicated it could be multi-leveled. It would be located on Butts Hill, but parking would not interfere with the residential neighborhood, she said.

"We want to put the parking lot on Sprague Street so it doesn't bother any of the residents. The folks who live up there don’t want more folks coming through there," she said.

Ms. Abbass stressed that she doesn't want to see a "boondoggle" at Fort Butts. RIMAP plans to spend the next three years studying the project's financing, traffic and other issues. Only if the project seems feasible will fund-raising begin, she said.

RIMAP hopes to open the museum in June 2019 — the 250th anniversary of Capt. Cook's first "voyage of discovery."

After the meeting Ms. Abbass led a tour of the 6.75-acre Fort Butts — the highest point on the north end of Aquidneck Island — which was part of the Portsmouth 375th celebration. (About 30 high school students helped to clean up the area the day before.)

The fort was the American stronghold during the Battle of Rhode Island in 1778. The property's earthwork and other features are still intact more than 230 years later, and Butts Hill is the only Revolutionary War fort in the state named a National Historic Landmark.

"This is my favorite spot in all of Rhode Island," she said. "You can just imagine what it would have been like in the 1770s."

For more information about the The Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project, visit www.rimap.org.

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.