From tourist stop to restricted zone

Museum: Since Sept. 11, Aberdeen Proving Ground and its rare-weapons display have been off-limits to most visitors.

July 16, 2002|By Linda Linley | Linda Linley,SUN STAFF

William F. Atwater, Pulling on white cotton gloves, William F. Atwater removes the rare 1874 rifle from behind the padlocked, two-tiered rack in a tornado-proof and windowless room at the U.S. Army Ordnance Museum at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

The U.S.-made Sharp's rifle, one of only four in existence, is worth about $400,000, said Atwater, the museum's director. That's why it's kept in the artifacts storage area in a corner of the museum, behind not one, but two padlocked doors.

Unless you are a collector, it would be hard to find the most valuable piece among the more than 1,200 weapons stored in racks that circle the room. One side, labeled Machine Gun Alley, is where the heavy-duty firepower is lined up.

Atwater has cataloged every weapon, tank and artillery piece at the museum in eastern Harford County. But he hasn't had many chances to show off the collection since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. That's when the military installation was secured and the access road became a serpentine course, with staggered concrete barriers and armed guards at the front gate.

"The museum was a good place for tourists to stop along the East Coast. We used to get about 300 visitors a day from the tour buses," said Atwater, 56, who has a doctorate from Duke University in military history. "We don't get that anymore."

What was once a large tourist attraction off Interstate 95 between Baltimore and Philadelphia is now restricted. The museum admits only military personnel, civilian government employees, and tour groups that have to make arrangements to visit at least two weeks in advance and be escorted into APG, the military's premiere research and testing center.

Last week, Atwater conducted a tour of the museum for a group from the University of Delaware as part of an engineering program for minority students. He showed the visitors how engineers use weapons from the past to improve the technology for modern-day applications.

There is no entrance fee at the museum, a federal facility with the largest collection of armor in the nation. Restoration work is paid for with federal money funneled through the ordnance center's Safety and Environment Division.

"We teach soldiers here - noncommissioned soldiers, new officers and senior officers. They learn how to fix vehicles and weapons," Atwater said. The artifact storage area with its array of weapons is used as a classroom for the U.S. Army Ordnance Center and School, which is also on the base.

Restricting access to the proving ground has created a ripple effect on and off the base. Because the number of visitors is down, donations have declined for Atwater's pet project, the restoration of historic tanks and artillery, many of which stand outside rusting. Atwater said business also is off at the museum's gift shop, APG's golf course, and in the county.

"We used to collect about $12,000 per year in donations from the container in the museum," said Atwater, a Harford County resident. "I know the donations are down, but I haven't counted the contributions this year."

Tom Sadowski, director of economic development for Harford County, said the loss of tourism at the proving grounds has been partly offset by the opening of Ripken Stadium, also in Aberdeen.

"We are hoping that in the near future we can have all the tourism back, including visitors to APG and the ordnance museum," Sadowski said.

These days, Atwater keeps busy overseeing the preservation of the 240 tanks, armored personnel carriers and other artillery pieces; 77 have been restored. Eight of the restored tanks are parked on concrete slabs at the back of the post golf course, where there is room for 17.

"There are a lot of one-of-a-kind items sitting out in the weather," Atwater said.

That brings him to his next major project - to get money for a $10 million, 750-foot-by- 450-foot building to keep restored artillery pieces out of the elements. Atwater said it's a waste of taxpayers' money to spend an average of $40,000 to $60,000 to preserve the artifacts and then let them deteriorate in the weather. So he's lobbying whoever will listen to get the funds to build the structure.

"I have to restore what I have here, since I am responsible for this equipment," Atwater said.

One of his next restoration projects will be the Skeleton tank, a World War I era experimental tank that Atwater calls the treasure of his collection. It looks like a shell, with rotting wooden sides, worn rubber tracks and a rusting metal black box where the driver sat.

The restoration, down to the last drop of historically accurate paint costing more than $100 per gallon, is being done by the Engineering/Documentation Systems, Inc. of Yorba Linda, Calif., which has a crew working in a building outfitted with its own environmental system.

Atwater, who has been museum director since 1989, goes to almost any length to restore the pieces to their original state, with some modifications.

But it was his request for the several gallons of K-Y jelly that caught the eye of Maj. Gen. Mitchell Stevenson, chief of ordnance and commanding general of the ordnance center and school.

Turns out, Canadian soldiers had used the jelly as a lubricant to restore the rubber used on the tracks of some of the tanks.

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