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The search is on for what may remain of the century-old Newport Barracks

three people flank a historical marker sign
Tana Weingartner
From left: Don Miller, professional archeologist and adjunct NKU professor; Emily O'Connor, graduate student; and Brian Hackett, Ph.D., program director for the Master of Public History program.

Archeological work is underway in Newport where the mouth of the Licking River meets the Ohio. You won't find shovels, trowels or carefully plotted grids of turned soil — at least, not yet.

Faculty and graduate students in Northern Kentucky University's master of public history program are using a three-wheeled, ground-penetrating radar to search for any remains of the Newport Barracks in General James Taylor Park.

Slides and picnic tables now sit on land where troops once mustered, first to fight in the War of 1812, and later to treat the Civil War wounded.

"The project we're conducting is focused on non-invasive archaeological techniques, specifically ground-penetrating radar," explains Don Miller, a professional archeologist and adjunct professor at NKU.

person pushes a three-wheeled radar device as a second person watches
Northern Kentucky University
NKU faculty and graduate students are using ground-penetrating radar to search for buried remains of the Newport Barracks.

Miller is working with Master of Public History Program Director Brian Hackett and students to possibly unearth the Newport Barracks' remains.

"It reads as a Who's Who," Hackett says. "Sherman was stationed here; Grant was here for a while. Not only that, there were a lot of people that were trained here that went out west. After it was a major fort, it became sort of like a supply depot and a training depot. I would say thousands and thousands of men went through here, not only them but their wives."

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Hackett says students have already uncovered doll heads from the 19th century, indicating families, too, came through the Newport Barracks.

The Newport Barracks closed when the U.S. Army moved to higher ground at Fort Thomas because of flooding. The site was deeded to the city of Newport in 1894. Now, the city is interested in learning what lies beneath.

Miller, Hackett and around 30 graduate students are using ground-penetrating radar, satellite-based imagery, and historic images, maps and surveys to find answers.

"We're looking to find any remnants of the barracks themselves," says Miller. "There was associated infrastructure such as outhouses, the buildings, foundations themselves, stables, officers' quarters, and there's a powder magazine that we have drawings of and photographs of, so we have all sorts of documentation of these structures that we cannot see any more so we're looking for the locations of them underneath the ground."

person pushes three-wheeled equipment while two others stand nearby
Northern Kentucky University
NKU students and faculty use ground-penetrating radar to search the former site of the Newport Barracks.

Once this work is finished, Miller expects it will take about three weeks to compile the results. If the study shows any intact deposits or structure remnants, they could start digging this summer.

"Within reason — we don't want to excavate the entire parking lot because all that needs to be repaved, and again, we're not digging just to dig, it's a management issue. We're attempting to locate these resources so that the city and ultimately the state can manage this resource better," he explains.

With developments like Ovation going up nearby, Hackett adds the city is interested in sprucing up the park.

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"They came to us and said, 'Would you do some research here? And maybe we could add some elements to the park that would enhance its history,' because this is a very, very significant place," Hackett says.

"This place was vital during the War of 1812. There's some incredible stories about soldiers here and prisoners of war that were here and my students have been uncovering that."

Students like Emily O'Connor, a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, who says the project stood out to her because of her military background. She says the deeper she dove into the lives of those who were stationed at the fort or died there, the more she wanted to tell their stories.

"It really invoked a warrior ethos in me where I just wanted to find out more. I wanted to be able to bring light to their sacrifices and bring light to the fact that there are people who can go home and then there are people who never will. They'll never experience another holiday, another birthday, another anything with their family, even if it is from 1812... just really putting to rest that spirit," she says.

playground, grass, tables with two rivers and cincinnati in background
Tana Weingartner
Playground equipment and picnic tables sit at the confluence of the Ohio and Licking rivers, where once stood a fort.

While the Newport Barracks are what prompted this research, Hackett recognizes this spot at the confluence of two rivers was probably important well before the military arrived.

The region was home and hunting grounds for at least two nations — the Myaamia (Miami) and Shawnee — and nearby Fort Thomas is the site of a circa-1749 battle by the Myaamia and Shawnee against the Cherokee that ended in the Cherokee being forced to leave.

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"It's an ideal place for people to gather together, even prehistorically. We're sure that the fort wasn't the first thing here. We think that there were probably Native Americans here at one time — we just don't know," says Hackett. "Perhaps we'll uncover that when we are allowed to explore further than just ground penetrating radar."

Stay tuned, those stories could be coming soon.

Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.