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Verdun reenacted at Fort Mifflin

The reenacting season opened with a literal cannon shot over the mud and snow at Fort Mifflin on Saturday afternoon.

The reenacting season opened with a literal cannon shot over the mud and snow at Fort Mifflin on Saturday afternoon.

A diverse array of reenactors portraying German and Allied soldiers slogging through the bloody Battle of Verdun in 1916 looked on, and a group of 21st-century visitors watched in the bright sun, enticed by the fort's First World War reenactment and a break in the frigid weather.

Despite the tangled, time-warpish nature of the gathering, it would seem a typical opening for Fort Mifflin, a local and National Historic Landmark by Philadelphia International Airport on the Delaware River.

But this has been a far from typical year for the fort, which first came on the world stage by bedeviling British warships sailing upriver during the early days of the Revolution.

Almost precisely a year ago, a fire broke out in the dead of night in the Officers' Quarters, a two-story structure along the fort's south wall. There were no injuries, and the Fire Department arrived quickly, but the combined fire and water damage proved devastating.

The building is structurally sound but unusable for the most part and remains closed for everything but storage.

After the fire, there was a series of floods. One flood is not unusual, but this year, there were four. Water overflowed the fort's moat and inundated the Hospital Building, used for administration.

The Hospital Building, which is outside the walls and to the west, is also suffering from a seriously deteriorating roof fast approaching critical stages.

Will summer bring a plague of locusts?

"That's what I've been asking," laughed Elizabeth Beatty, executive director. "There have been hurricanes, floods, an earthquake, a fire."

(For the record: the hurricanes and earthquake were not this last year, but when the ground shook, "It was the first earthquake I've ever experienced," said Beatty, recalling the trembling event about four years ago.)

This last year has been bad enough. But neither fire nor flood has daunted the fort.

"The fort has struggled with its location on Mud Island since its inception," said Beatty. "It just is a great lesson in perseverance. First there were young soldiers, basically teenagers, persevering against the mightiest power in the world in the 18th century. Here is the fort today, facing tough conditions and funding challenges, and we have not missed a single program. Not one. We did not allow the tragedy to get in the way of any program."

The funding challenges are daunting for a historic site that runs on an annual budget of about $290,000. A new strategic plan, implemented this year, has focused attention on marketing and pricing structure.

Beatty said most everything will take a backseat to replacement of the Hospital Building, which is "in desperate shape."

Beyond the shuttered Officers' Quarters, there are maintenance issues throughout the fort - windows need to be replaced, other roofs need repair, bricks need pointing, cracks need filling.

A preservation fund has been established and a funding appeal is in the works.

"There are 50 acres and multiple buildings - a lot of real estate on Mud Island," said Beatty.

Yet the fort continues on with multiple reenactments, ghost hunts, a scout program, school programs, and other events.

This is the fourth year it has opened its season with World War I. That may not be as incongruous as it sounds. In addition to its Revolutionary War role, the fort served as a military prison during the Civil War and as a munitions depot in both world wars. It has had a piece of virtually every major American military action from the Revolution through the Second World War.

"I've been coming here for a very, very long time," said Matt Murphy, 36, chowing down some potato and leek potage outside one of the old casemates Saturday afternoon.

In the past, he's come down from Jersey City to portray a Revolutionary War soldier; on Saturday, he was dressed as a French infantryman from 1916.

"Hopefully, you walk away from this [fort] with two things," Murphy said. "An understanding of what this fort is and what World War One is, and, particularly, what the French went through at Verdun."