Fort Roberdeau was a stockaded structure, apparently the only one in the present-day Blair County region to have been authorized by the Pennsylvania Assembly, built expressly for the security and protection of the men engaged in mining the lead that was abundant in the Sinking Spring Valley.
Fort Roberdeau is the only one of the six fortified structures known to have been constructed within the limits of present-day Blair County during the American Revolutionary War to be reconstructed.
The numerous veins of lead that were believed to exist in the soil of the valley lying between the twin ridges of Brush Mountain drew the attention of the Patriots during the Revolutionary War. It has been claimed that the French were the first to attempt to extract the valuable mineral from the Sinking Spring Valley. Although not proven by any surviving documentation, the French who claimed trading rights throughout the region west of the Susquehanna River may have learned of the lead deposits as early as 1750 from the Indians who inhabited this region. Apparently, these early lead miners had opened a number of pits and dug a trench nearly six miles in length to connect various mines.
On 23 March, 1777 Major General John Armstrong wrote to Thomas Wharton, Jr, the President of the Supreme Executive Council of the State of Pennsylvania to acquaint him with the fact that the veins of lead that lay near Frankstown would be advantageous to the Patriot cause. He noted that the mine on the Proprietaries' Sinking Valley tract of 9,056 acres, which occupied roughly the entire valley formed by the V-shaped Brush Mountain, should be seized by the newly declared state of Pennsylvania for its use. In March of 1777 the General Assembly of Pennsylvania gave approval to General Daniel Roberdeau to begin mining operations at the site.
One of the greatest needs of the Patriot armies was ammunition. There were only a few lead mines in operation when the War started, and their output was not sufficient to meet the demand. There was a possibility of a good supply of lead in Bedford County in the valley where streams rose and sunk into the limestone based soil, giving it the name of Sinking Spring Valley. It was to this place that Daniel Roberdeau traveled in 1777, arriving on the 27th of April. He found that the earlier report of General Armstrong was correct as to the promise of a high yield of the valuable mineral, but he also found that the region was occasionally threatened by Indian incursions. In order to carry on the operation of mining the lead, some sort of protection would need to be provided for the miners. It has been speculated that the construction of Fort Roberdeau took place in two stages. It is possible, though not established with certainty, that a fortified structure would have been erected for the miners to live in. A blockhouse for a lookout to keep watch for anyone attempting to invade the vicinity might have been constructed close to the living quarters.
The second stage of the construction of the actual fort did not occur until the summer and fall of 1778. At that time, the engineering feat of buidling a stockade on the site that consisted of a limestone strata less than a few feet below the topsoil was undertaken. The solution that was ultimately arrived at called for the logs of the stockade walls to be placed horizontally and supported at intervals with uprights. The usual construction method of a palisade type fort was to sink logs vertically into the soil and then lash them together by some means. This could not be done at Fort Roberdeau because of the shallow layer of topsoil.
The completed fort was named Fort Roberdeau, but locally it became known as the Lead-Mine Fort. In the latter half of the year 1779, the fort was garrisoned by a company of the Bedford County Militia, a company of Rangers under the direction of Captain Robert Cluggage. Although there exists no evidence that Fort roberdeau was ever attacked by any body of Indians, it did provide a refuge for settlers of the surrounding region if their homesteads were threatened.
Only one letter survives to this day to present us with a picture, if only scanty at that, of the situation at the fort. That letter, currently the property of the Fort Roberdeau Park, was written on 17 June, 1778 after Captain Robert Cluggage took command of the fort. in it Captain Cluggage noted that "The 14th about twelve o'clock in the day one was discovered within two hundred yards of this fort." and that "The proceeding night two or three of them was discovered by one of the sentinals creeping up to the wall.", referring to the Indians that had been roaming into the region of Frankstown Township in Bedford County.
The Lead-Mines Fort served its purpose of protecting the miners, but that enterprise in itself was doomed to failure. The amount of lead that could be extracted from the ore bearing limestone had been exaggerated. The cost of mining combined with the cost of reducing the ore to useable lead was greater than the profit to be made by the operation. That, coupled with the fact that the French government became an ally of the Patriots by the treaty of amity signed on 06 February, 1778, condemned the Fort Roberdeau venture to an end only a year after its beginning. There were also more pressing concerns for the militia, and the fort was not even maintained as a regional garrison. Despite the fact that the structure may have been utilized by the local settlers as a place of refuge, albeit one they had to defend themselves, the fort began to eventually deteriorate.
By the 1940s, when the decision was made to attempt to restore the fort, the only portions of it still extant were the walls of the powder magazine and the stonework of what is believed to have been a smelting forge constructed inside the stockade walls. The National Youth Administration sparked interest in trying to get the site restored in 1939, but that project was interrupted by the Second World War. Members of the Blair County Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution revived the restoration project in 1973. The Fort Roberdeau Restoration Committee was established by the Blair County Commissioners, and the fort became a Bicentennial Project, dedicated on 05 July, 1976.
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The Fort Roberdeau Historic Landmark is owned and operated by the County of Blair. The park occupies a 230 acre tract in Sinking Valley, Tyrone Township, Blair County. Besides the fort itself, the park includes a Visitor Center and Museum Shop (housed in an 1858 barn), picnic facilities, nature trails and a conference center (White Oak Hall), which may be rented for meetings and social functions.
To reach the park:
(From Route 220 in Altoona) Turn off Route 220 onto Kettle Road. Travel northward on Kettle Road for a distance of approximately eight miles through the farmlands of Sinking Valley.
(From I-99) Turn off I-99 at the Bellwood Exit, midway between Altoona and Tyrone, and follow State Route 1008 across Brush Mountain to the village of Skelp. At Skelp, turn right onto State Route 1015. Follow State Route 1015 about two miles to where it intersects with the Kettle Road. Turn right (southward) onto Kettle Road and follow it about a half mile. A small sign directs you onto the park's access road.
There is an admission charge to tour the reconstructed fort, but parking is free of charge. The park's season runs from May 1 through October 31. Hours are: Tuesday through Saturday, 11 am to 5 pm; Sunday & Monday, 1 pm to 5 pm. You may contact the Fort Roberdeau Historic Landmark at: Fort Roberdeau, RD 3, Box 391, Altoona, PA 16601 (814)-946-0048
If you are planning a trip to visit Fort Roberdeau, you might want to contact the park office for dates and details for the annual Revolutionary War Days event, an annual reenactment of an 18th century military field camp.