The greater Harrisburg area has no shortage of “forts.”
That’s because central Pennsylvania long served as a crossroads for settlers and as a battlefield in long-ago wars.
Just up the Susquehanna River, Fort Halifax is one such place.
“During the French and Indian War, in the mid-1700s, Fort Halifax played a significant role in the forming of a provincial army, and the building and garrisoning of forts along what was then the Pennsylvania frontier,” said Norma Shearer, president of the Friends of Fort Halifax Park.
And, like many of its fellow “forts,” one day is set aside each year to celebrate Fort Halifax and its history, with this year’s event taking place on May 5.
The 15th Annual Colonial Fort Halifax Festival will feature activities for both adults and children, including living history encampments, arts and craft vendors, food, children’s activities, hay rides, archaeological site education and live British, French and Native American battle reenactments.
“One of the most popular events is the tomahawk throw,” said Friends of Fort Halifax Park member Frank Wilmarth. “It’s more difficult than you may think as you must spin the tomahawk so it hits the target with the blade forward. Otherwise, you get a thud as the handle hits target, with many groans from the audience.”
In the 18th century, the tomahawk was not only one of the frontiersman’s primary tools, but it was his most reliable weapon. Flintlocks of that day were good for only a single shot. So, you needed to have a dependable option for confronting an enemy.
“Interestingly, it has been making a resurgence—most notably in local bars where it has been introduced to supplement the more refined activity of dart throwing,” Wilmarth said.
Fort Halifax got its start in June 1756, when Col. William Clapham marched out of Fort Hunter with five companies of men to proceed north along the Susquehanna River, with orders to establish a fort between Fort Hunter and the two forks of the Susquehanna.
“I find this area the most convenient place on the river between Fort Hunter and Shamokin for a magazine (a place to store supplies) on account of its good natural situation,” Clapham wrote to Gov. Robert Morris a few days later, following his arrival at the confluence of Armstrong Creek and the Susquehanna.
During the next 16 months, Fort Halifax served as the chief post on the line of communications between the settlements near Fort Hunter and Sunbury, where Fort Augusta would be established later that same year.
On July 1, 1756, Clapham left Fort Halifax, leaving it garrisoned with about 30 men. He ordered all supplies to be stored there until needed for the construction of Fort Augusta. Without this established post at Halifax, the supplies and line of communication could not have been maintained for use in building and sustaining the larger fort at what was considered the more strategic location.
After Fort Augusta was built, pressures mounted from citizens around Fort Hunter to return the garrison there to protect settlers south of Peters Mountain. So, Fort Halifax was vacated then decommissioned in 1763 at the end of the French and Indian War.
The area stayed important as the Wiconisco Canal was built on the grounds of the fort in the early 1830s to provide transportation between Harrisburg and Millersburg. The stately sycamore trees along the road were placed on the National Registry of Historic Places in the 1920s and the highway, now Route 147, was the important Legislative Route One between Pennsylvania and New York.
Much of the land where Fort Halifax had been built later became farmland. In 2006, the Yeager family sold their farm to Halifax Township with the proviso the tract be designated a park.
Today, at the park, Ty Zimmerman is a blacksmith and historical interpreter with 18 years of experience. He provides educational narrative while demonstrating various blacksmithing techniques on his 18th-century forge, which is fueled by a set of handmade bellows.
“My planned items for this event will be creating a tasting ladle, a cooking trammel and nails,” Zimmerman said.
The day before the festival is education day for fifth-grade students of Halifax Elementary School. A dozen or so living historians demonstrate various skills, examples of the life during that period of time, stressing the years of the French and Indian War, which is part of the Halifax Area Elementary School curriculum.
“For me, the best part of the festival is the arrival of the Fife and Drum Corps composed of middle-school students from Central York school,” Shearer said. “It always gives me a chill when they march onto the fort grounds playing their music and performing.”
It’s not all fun for Shearer, as the biggest challenge for the Friends of Fort Halifax Park is the daily maintenance of the property. Upkeep of gardens, trails, mowing and fixing storm damage, trash pickup along the highway and the Susquehanna River, along with fundraising and community outreach, keep the members busy.
“But all the challenges pale as I watch people enjoy the day and the students learn from our education programs,” Shearer said. “I love it.”
The Colonial Fort Halifax Festival takes place May 5, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., at Fort Halifax Park, north of the borough of Halifax on Route 147, about 30 minutes north of Harrisburg. For more information, visit www.forthalifaxpark.org.