|Fort Carroll, MD|
Description: With the War of 1812 still fresh in the minds of the citizens of Baltimore, the proposal in 1818 to build a fort to protect Baltimore Harbor was warmly received. This new fort was intended to supplement the protection afforded by Fort McHenry, which had become engulfed by Baltimore’s expanding city limits.
For three years, Lee commuted daily from his townhouse in Baltimore to the work site. In 1850, the construction site was named in honor of Charles Carroll, the last living signer of the Declaration of Independence. Progress on the fort was slow. By 1851 only the structure’s foundation and first level had been completed at the substantial cost of $1 million. At this point, Congress started to reconsider the fort’s strategic placement, wondering whether it would be more efficient to have a structure near the Virginia Capes where it could guard more than one seaport. Congress was unable to come to a conclusion, though, and Lee took a new job as the head of West Point military academy.
The fort’s development was hindered from the beginning by inadequate funding and the soft sand of the bay. A keeper’s dwelling with a light atop its roof was erected on Fort Carroll in 1854 to warn ships of the large construction site and to indicate the path from the Brewerton Channel to the Fort McHenry Channel. At that time, the keeper was the sole resident of the fort.
By the time of the Civil War, the fort’s walls were less than half of their originally intended height. The government was insistent on making the most of it, however, and thirty guns were placed there to defend Baltimore Harbor against Confederate incursions. Robert E. Lee’s project was therefore ironically turned against his southern forces, although no actual combat shots were ever fired from the fort. In fact, in 1864 heavy rains flooded the fort, and all of the ammunition and gunpowder were transferred to nearby Fort McHenry.
The light was removed from the keeper’s roof in 1875 and placed on the southwest salient. In 1888, a new keeper’s dwelling was built for just over $2,000. The Spanish American War prompted substantial changes to the fort and the lighthouse. In October of 1898 both the lighthouse and the fog bell tower were demolished so that new concrete gun batteries could be put in place. The Army equipped these batteries with guns similar to those in battleships, including bore sizes of fifteen, twelve and ten inches. While the weapons were in readiness by 1900, hostilities with Spain had by then ceased, and once again the fort did not see combat action.
A replacement lighthouse was quickly built in December of 1898 and consisted of a wooden tower which contained both a fifth-order Fresnel lens and a new machine-operated fog bell. This structure was approximately 100 feet north of the old tower, and its light shone from 45 feet above mean high tide. This new location for the lighthouse did not last long, however, for in 1900 structural changes to the fort required a movement of the tower 100 feet to the south. The following year the casement beneath the lighthouse was destroyed, leaving the lower story open. This was quickly repaired, and the structure has remained much as it is to the present day.
The massive fortress was by this time essentially obsolete, though it did serve some functions of varying importance during the two World Wars. After America became involved in the first European conflict, the garrison was used as a staging area for personnel mining Baltimore Harbor against enemy ships. The gun batteries were also used for practice firing. By 1921, however, the Army had abandoned the post and taken all of its weapons to Fort Howard. The lighthouse had been fully automated the previous year. In World War II, the Coast Guard utilized the four man-made acres as a pistol range, and also as temporary quarters for foreign sailors whose ships had to be fumigated before entering the harbor.
In 1958 the government sold both the fortress and the lighthouse, which had been decommissioned after World War II, to Baltimore lawyer Benjamin Eisenberg. He paid about ten thousand dollars to acquire the property, and intended to turn it into a casino. Apparently there were powerful figures who disagreed with this plan, for it was found that the ambiguous county boundaries placed that section of the harbor outside of gambling-friendly Anne Arundel County. Eisenberg went looking for another use for the fort, but in the meantime he repaired its broken walls and planted a great number of peach trees. In 1964 Eisenberg leased the land to Robert Jackson, an entrepreneur who intended to use the grounds for tourism. He possessed a hydrofoil named Baltimore Clipper, which he used to ferry passengers back and forth. This venture, however, failed to turn a profit and was soon called off.
The formerly landscaped interior of the fort has turned into a jungle of vines, weeds and trees. The masonry and concrete of the fort are slowly disintegrating, and birds have taken up residence and covered the parapets with their droppings. There are many who see positive developments in this unique habitat, however. An oyster reef restoration effort is centered around Fort Carroll, and the site also serves as a testing ground for wildlife monitoring and water quality. In the midst of Baltimore’s industry and infrastructure, Fort Carroll has become the most manifold habitat of bird species in a 100-mile radius. This is both a good and a bad thing, however, for the peach trees in which the birds nests are undermining the foundation of Fort Carroll. It may come to a point where either the nesting sites or the historic monument will have to be sacrificed.
The ruins of Fort Carroll can nowadays be seen to the southwest of Francis Scott Key Bridge. Some feel the fort is both unattractive and even dangerously placed in the midst of vital shipping lanes. While the Park Service is diligently preserving Fort Pulaski in Savannah, Georgia and Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, it has shown no interested in Fort Carroll, which is a contemporary of the other two forts. It is unclear what the future of this strange landmark holds - perhaps it can be put to an educational use, but maybe it is just ‘for the birds.’
Located on a small island just east of the Interstate 695 bridge over the Patapsco
River. The fort and lighthouse are owned by Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse. Grounds/tower closed.
The fort and lighthouse are owned by Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse. Grounds/tower closed.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.