The National Park Service Tuesday awarded a grant worth $293,354 to the University of South Alabama toward the purchase of a 59-acre tract of land contiguous with Historic Blakeley State Park in Spanish Fort, the site of one of the final battles of the Civil War. But the sale is far from closing, according to local preservationist Bill Finch, who said a small group of organizers are currently searching for “a lot more local funding.”
“The Conservation Fund will hold the title and we’re trying to raise money to relieve their debt on this,” Finch said Wednesday. “It all depends on whether or not The Conservation Fund thinks we can pull together enough money to make this all work. We’re still looking at a way to do that but we did get some money from the NPS and that’s a good thing.”
The grant was one of three awarded nationwide as a part of the American Battlefield Protection Program, which aims to preserve battlefields threatened with damage or destruction by urban and suburban development.
“Battlefield Land Acquisition Grants allow for the permanent protection of lands associated with historic battles in our country’s history,” National Park Service Deputy Director P. Daniel Smith said. “The grants enable communities to partner with public, private, and non-profit organizations to preserve and provide access to meaningful places that connect us to our past.”
Fort Blakeley Battlefield, Chippewa Lakes LLC Tract is currently owned by the Meaher family and in addition to relatively well preserved Civil War fortifications, Finch said the property is full of history, also encompassing a “landmark bluff” overlooking the confluence of the Blakeley and Tensaw rivers featuring rich biodiversity.
“When the ‘for sale’ signs went up … I passed by those signs a lot of times and asked myself what was going to happen,” Finch said last week. After inquiring with previous Blakeley State Park Director Jo Anne Flirt and current Director Mike Bunn, Finch learned state finances were stretched thin and the tract was too small and too historic for national organizations like The Nature Conservancy or state programs like Forever Wild.
In spite of his previous advocacy of an idea to turn the entirety of the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta over to the National Park Service, Finch said the NPS will have no control over the Blakeley property and this project is unrelated to that discussion. If the sale goes through, the property will be transferred to The Conservation Fund.
“I went to The American Battlefield Trust … a nonprofit that provides funds for places like Gettysburg and Blakeley and this property was high on their list,” he said. “They didn’t have the money but we talked for a while and I went to The Conservation Fund and they agreed if we meet certain criteria, they would participate. We’re still trying to meet that criteria, but one of the things American Battlefield Trust brought to the table was they said ‘we can help you get a grant from the [National Park Service’s] American Battlefield Grant program’ and they did … we wouldn’t have been able to do it without that grant.”
One criterion was to have a state-sponsored fiscal agent. Finch said the University of South Alabama was so interested, they went beyond offering to serve in that capacity but also offered to help secure the easement for the property and design educational and research programs around the site.
Finch said human history on the site can be traced back to Mississippian and archaic cultures who “probably inhabited the area for thousands of years” before the arrival of Europeans. The bluff itself was a source of clay for pottery, he said, evidence of which has been found around the region.
“We know the last village of the Apalachee Indians, who were decimated along the Florida Panhandle, was right there on that site,” he said. “There is also very important black community that has been in that area since Reconstruction.”
Finch noted the grant was preliminary and will not be paid out unless the balance of the purchase price can be raised from other sources. He would not disclose the total price,
but said a “significant shortfall” remains. A few private sources have pledged conditional funding and Finch said he was “optimistic” about the deal eventually going through.
“This is a small effort by a few folks who hated to see this part of the Blakeley battlefield disappear and see this bluff engulfed in development,” he said. “Housing development has been very detrimental to [Civil War fortifications] in Spanish Fort and elsewhere.”
Aside from the Native American presence on the property, Finch said the Civil War history on the site is well documented and included participation from the U.S. Colored Troops.
“This was probably their biggest battle and that needs to be interpreted as part of the history of Blakeley,” he said.
Finch said if the sale does go through, it would likely be a few years before public access to the site could be granted. Currently, there is little to no vehicular access and no designated walking trails. Plus, USA is interested in performing an archaeological survey before the property is disturbed.
“The Conservation Fund wants to know I have raised enough money, so they are waiting to hear from me as to whether the vision I had will come through and honestly I don’t know yet,” he said. “It could be a matter of days or it could be months, but we need to do it as quickly as possible because the owners do not have to be as patient as they have been.”
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