Lost to obsolescence, obscurity and overgrowth, promontories along the lower Patapsco once had serious firepower—state-of-the-art homeland security of over a century ago. But those mighty guns are long gone and the miniature forts that held them are slowly disintegrating into the undergrowth
by Diana Prentice
Oh, yes, Baltimore. Having spent youthful years in study there, I have a special place in my heart for Charm City. And when far-flung cruisers gush about calling at the Inner Harbor and Fells Point, my pride unfurls. Old landmarks—like that great, glowing "Domino Sugars
" logo—intermingle with a new-fashioned waterfront, irresistibly chic from those rowdy, reeking wharves of old. The city is a dear friend, but for some reason I never made an acquaintance with the Patapsco River itself. In the mid-1990s, when my return visits shifted from road treks to float trips on
, our Tayana 37, the tributary was no more appealing to me than Interstate 83.
's log shows us charging up and down those 10 miles, from North Point to the Inner Harbor, a dozen times. Yet it was always the goal, never the getting-there, that grabbed my attention.
So whenever we navigated this commercial corridor of concrete and shoulder-to-shoulder steel, rarely was I moved to raise the camera unless passing the star-spangled buoy marking where Mr. Key was inspired by warfare in 1814 and at Fort McHenry itself. And I figured that after those British
ships hightailed it down the Chesapeake nearly 200 years ago, Baltimore settled in for a period of growth and prosperity, with overdevelopment and pollution the only menaces to these shores.
But military history continued to march along the Patapsco. In the latter 19th-century another superpower of the day—Spain—had begun to assert itself again on the high seas. For much of that century, the U.S. and Spain had mistrusted of each other's territorial and "imperial" motives. And naturally that made the homeland-defense folks more than a little jittery. Teddy Roosevelt and "Remember the Maine" aside, my knowledge of the Spanish-American War is as scant as the hostilities were brief. It never occurred to me that national anxiety levels at that time would be running at fever pitch, or that local shores would be arming themselves, even planting mines in the Patapsco, to fend off invaders.
Of course this was before radio, radar and airplanes—when warships posed the biggest threats. So the key to coastal defense was the placement and careful concealment of weaponry. Huge
weaponry. From shore, on a steady platform, a high-powered gun with a relatively small crew could cripple a warship from many miles away.
As early as 1883, Colonel William Price Craighill, the engineer-in-charge of the Army Corps of Engineers (and, yes, namesake of the nearby channel and light), offered a detailed proposal for the defense of Baltimore, suggesting batteries on every point projecting into the Patapsco. And a few years later President Grover Cleveland created the civilian-military Board of Fortifications to study the state of coastal defenses (shockingly inadequate, the board concluded) and to recommend improvements. This "Endicott Board," so called because it was chaired by then Secretary of War William Endicott, eventually recommended some $21 million (equivalent to more than $3 billion today) in coastal-defense upgrades around the country and in its territories.
The Patapsco got not one but three of these state-of-the-art artillery batteries in the late 1890s: Fort Smallwood, at Rock Point on the southeast shore; Fort Armistead, about four miles upstream on the same side, at Hawkins Point; and Fort Howard, across the river from Armistead at North Point (yes, that North Point, where British troops came ashore in their unsuccessful assault on Baltimore during the War of 1812). These were not old-school forts, not the kind with high stone walls and hundreds of smoothbore cannon that lobbed iron balls at wooden ships. No, these were comparatively small, low-profile, reinforced-concrete bunkers, each with a handful of very deadly, very long-range (five, six, seven miles) breech-loading artillery—many of them so-called "disappearing rifles," because they would rise up, fire and then retract into the bunker, hidden from enemy view.
So that gave the Patapsco four discreet artillery batteries—the fourth being Fort Carroll, which had been built in the middle of the river, just downstream from where the Francis Scott Key Bridge now crosses. Randy and I already knew of Fort Carroll, of course, but we were nonetheless curious—as, no doubt, are most boaters who've come within wondering distance of that forlorn man-made island.
But the other, later Patapsco fortifications—Fort Armistead, Fort Howard, Fort Smallwood—intrigued me. Where were they
? So last summer Randy and I went plying the behemoth-busy Brewerton Channel. We started with Fort Smallwood, which, our charts told us, sits on Rock Point on the south shore of the Patapsco, just a few miles upstream from Bodkin Point at the mouth of the river.
At the very least, the cluster of charted "White Rocks" on the southern side was worthy of drifting in for a closer look. These curious aberrations, randomly thrusting up from 15-foot depths like a pod of fossilized whales, are startling. I asked Randy how high in the air he thought they might project. Twenty feet was his guess. So where did they
The rocks, although off the main shipping channels, were navigational aids well before a flashing beacon was attached to one in the late 1930s. Indeed, the Algonquin name of Patapsco is said to refer to these deposits. But the best I've been able to gather about them is that fishing around them is terrific on the right tide. A few small boats were swaying with outstretched poles, so we figured timing was good. Otherwise, no one seems to pay much attention to them. They're just there.
Looking southeast beyond the out-of-character outcroppings, Rock Point itself is half a mile away. Its verdancy is in stark contrast to the uninviting, universally rust-colored metallic rigs piercing upward on the Patapsco's north shore. "Looks like a park," I said, pointing. "Not what I expected," said Randy. The lawn was wide and open, punctuated with shadows from abundant leafy trees. Amid the foliage was a bulky white concrete bunker. Google-mapping it on the smart phone verified that we'd found Fort Smallwood, and on this lazy Sunday in July it was aswarm with merry picnickers, not military patrols.
OUR PLAN WAS TO FIND AN ANCHORAGE hereabouts and then visit Fort Smallwood by dinghy the next day. The entrance to Stoney Creek was a bit too . . . well, stony, for our comfort, so we chose Rock Creek—wider, unencumbered, straightforward. As we motored slowly up stream, we didn't see any rocks, but something else hit us like a ton of bricks. Both the serenity and ambience were inconsistent with all our previous notions of the Patapsco. The no-wake-zoned upstream banks are attractively lined with homes and docks, and all those gnarly contraptions of industry are out of sight, out of mind. Coming up on happy-hour, we doubled back downstream and dropped the hook in Wall Cove, a mile or so from Rock Point on the southeast side of the creek.
In the morning, after a call to Fort Smallwood Park office, we scratched our plan to zip over there in the dinghy. Motorized craft are prohibited along the park's 5200-foot shoreline, and only emergency vessels are permitted at the 380-foot dock. This pier, replacing the one lost to Hurricane Isabel in 2003, is dedicated to Chesapeake writer and local resident Bill Burton (and indeed a longtime contributor to
Chesapeake Bay Magazine
from the 1970s into the 1990s), and also dedicated strictly to fishing and crabbing. Kayaks and canoes (and, presumably, unpowered sailboats) may launch and land at park's designated beach any day from dawn until dusk—except Wednesdays, when the park is closed. Oh, well.
Like its other Patapsco guardians, Fort Smallwood had a relatively brief active career. Built in 1896, it was decommissioned in 1927 and converted to a Baltimore City park. Steamships brought day-trippers here and to an adjacent beach at Fairview for riverside reverie and glimpses of the Bay. Originally, this particular citadel held two jumbo concrete batteries at water's edge with earthen berms. Eventually the earthworks and one battery were removed, leaving just one cumbersome cement curiosity, known as Battery Hartshorne, named for a U.S. Army Captain killed in action in the Philippine-American War in 1902.
Decades of neglect forced the city to allow Anne Arundel County, in which the property is located, to take control in 2006. Since then the park has enjoyed a renaissance. Today the fort's ponds—once breeding grounds for mosquitos which made military duty even more miserable—draw birds and bird-watchers. Recognized as a migrating raptor flyway, raptor enthusiasts called "hawk heads" gather each spring to record northbound bird-of-prey traffic. My call to Fort Smallwood ended with a cheery invitation to visit by car to see the battery and old wooden barracks, and to enjoy the walking trails. I promised I would.
Next on the agenda was closer look Fort Carroll, the aforementioned mid-19th-century fortress in the middle of the river, in the shadow of the Francis Scott Key Bridge. When the Patapsco was span-free, the artificial island of Fort Carroll, with open and armed gun-ports, must have been intimidating. Standing nearly in the middle of the river, it's about halfway between the Bay and the Inner Harbor. The thing that surprised me most about Fort Carroll is that its designer and early project supervisor was a young U.S. Army brevet colonel, fresh from distinguished service in the Mexican-American War, named Robert E. Lee.
Lee lived in Baltimore for several years while working in the Patapsco, leaving in 1852 for an assignment as Superintendent of the Military Academy at West Point, a post he reluctantly accepted. This would be his last construction project after decades of distinguished service as an officer and combat engineer for the U.S. Army. Lee's successor at Fort Carroll was Captain Henry Brewerton, namesake of the nearby shipping channel. Later, as Lieutenant Colonel Brewerton and responsible for Baltimore's defenses during the Civil War, he became his former colleague's adversary.
Besides the usual hardships, building Fort Carroll met serious stumbling blocks. The insecure foundation in the sandy bottom was one, funding was another, and finally the War Between the States altered the outcome. Original plans called for three levels, fitted with 250 to 350 guns. Instead, the walls were built only half that high, and there were never more than 30 cannon. Although fully manned and active for many years, Fort Carroll never saw combat—unlike two similarly-made forts of that era, Fort Sumpter and Fort Pulaski. After the war, it languished, becoming outdated.
The fresh flurry of nervousness in the mid-1890s, however, stimulated a fresh flow of military expenditures. Ironically, by the time Fort Carroll was minimally modernized, it was 1900 and the Spanish-American war was over.
Well past the approaches to the commercial docks on Sparrows Point's western side, I steered Strider
to starboard into 15 feet, north of the shipping channel (which somewhere around here becomes the McHenry Channel; the charts aren't very precise). Unlike Fort Smallwood, Fort Carroll is not well-groomed, and gliding around its six sides reminded me of meandering through a neglected, weed-choked graveyard. The once-white granite is streaked with age and weather, and the chaotic interior is clogged with unknown varieties of deciduous volunteers.
A slab of rough cement remains where a dock once connected it to the fort, and we doubted anyone would risk treading here. It's not only dangerous, but now that sentinels are strictly avian, the accumulated droppings must be horrific. Cormorants craned their awkward necks from the tops of walls, and herons and gulls flapped and gazed from every high limb and foliage-filled open turret, tolerating our slow circle of their haven. Completing the loop, we inspected what remains of the lightless wooden tower that once guided ships toward the juncture to the Fort McHenry Channel. At each level a bird nonchalantly groomed itself.
NEXT WE HEADED SOUTH ACROSS THE CHANNEL, parallel to and below the Key Bridge, to explore what was once Fort Armistead less than a mile away. As we approached it we could see a low bulkhead surrounding the eastern side of Hawkins Point, with a gravel parking area on its wide, flat bank. Behind it, high scruffy mounds, thick with shrubs and trees, hide long-forgotten emplacements.
Unlike the other three forts which honor distinguished individuals of the Revolutionary era, this one is named for Major George Armistead, the young commander of Fort McHenry during that auspicious 25-hour siege, the Battle of Baltimore, in September of 1814. Another difference is that small motorized vessels are welcome. Judging by cars on the quay with attached empty trailers, the boat ramp (added when the park was spruced-up in the early 1980s) appears well-used.
With our draft keeping us protectively skittish, we hovered at a distance, watching a couple launch bright red kayaks at the ramp. A wooden breakwater helps tame wakes, and an adjacent fishing pier looks like it could use some attention.
Sadly, the area is not pretty. The 40-some-acre patch of green, owned and managed by the City of Baltimore, is engulfed in what I previously took to be the essence of the Patapsco: landfills, treatment plants, refineries, gantry cranes, tanks, silos, cement and chemical companies. We slowly turned eastward, thinking about that poor young Armistead. He stood up against a frighteningly fierce Royal Navy, became Lieutenant Colonel at war's end, then died just three years later at age 38. He certainly deserved a much better namesake.
Retracing our path back across the Patapsco for a look at Fort Howard, next on the list, we cruised as close to North Point as we dared. Fort Howard was the headquarters for the river's entire harbor defense system and must have been a showpiece in its day. It was a small village with handsome quarters for senior and junior officers, NCOs and three 100-man barracks. On site were an administration building, post hospital and guardhouse with accommodations for 15 prisoners. Later, a post exchange, gym, theatre and firehouse were added.
Following the World War I, its three batteries—arrayed at the southern tip of North Point—were gradually deactivated, but it remained a vibrant military post. In 1925, when Douglas MacArthur became the Army's youngest major general, he lived at Fort Howard for a while. I picture him puffing that characteristic, oversized corncob pipe while surveying the Patapsco from one of the post-Victorian screened-in porches.
In 1940 Fort Howard was turned over to the Veterans Administration and a massive hospital was built there in 1943. Some Army activities, however, continued on the grounds. Before the end of World War II, some two hundred Japanese and German internees were housed in the unused barracks. And as recently as the 1960s, Army intelligence conducted training here, even constructing a replica Vietnamese village complete with tunnels for counterinsurgency training. The VA hospital closed in 2002, though a small outpatient clinic remains.
Today the place looks like a vandalized ghost town with a spectacular view. On the tree-lined, dignified avenue from the gate to the water, once-standing-tall, now-boarded-up officers houses slip deeper into despair each year. The VA still owns most of the property, with Baltimore County controlling what is now Fort Howard Park, 60 some acres on the eastern edge of the point, where the remains of the gun batteries are. These were the critical first line of the layered defense plan. It's now a pleasant park overlooking the bay-side of North Point.
Ideas to transform the peninsula into a 95-acre senior veteran community appear to remain alive. The intent is to accommodate all levels of need from active adult to skilled nursing care while maintaining the fort's historical character. This may be a long-term and difficult project, however. Like the veterans it needs to serve, the tired place once nicknamed the "Bulldog at Baltimore's Gate" can use a lot of TLC.
Most of the Patapsco's batteries were manned throughout World War I, but by the Second World War anti-aircraft artillery had replaced fixed waterfront defenses. The era officially ended in 1950. In our households, newer technology always presents the dilemma of what to do with what is no-longer-useful; forts are the same way.
Fort Smallwood was renewed. It's now an alluring place for families to fish, crab, walk, play, picnic and count hawks. Fort Armistead is being reused as a boat ramp, and the walls of its lonely batteries now serve as vast canvases for talented, color-loving graffiti artists. Fort Carroll, despite some wild ideas for it in the 1950s, remains wild having been recycled into a busy and productive bird sanctuary. As for Fort Howard, the bulk of it remains forlornly on the trash heap with just the promise of being renewed, reused and/or recycled.
4000 Hawkins Point Road, Baltimore, MD 21226
Fort Armistead Park, at the southwestern tip of the Key Bridge, is open daily with a steep two-lane boat ramp, fishing pier, bank fishing, and large parking areas to accommodate cars with trailers. Free, it's a popular landing and launching site for small trailerable boats and jet-skis as well as canoes and kayaks. The neglected cement tunnels and batteries which once held gun emplacements are impressive, reached by steps rising from the upper parking area to the surrounding earthworks. Besides rampant weeds, vines, broken glass and litter, the site, although interesting, is not otherwise inviting. A heavily-attended (mostly by young folks) regional event called Starscape Festival is held on park grounds each June featuring many entertainers performing live electronic and rave music on several stages (one the parapet itself).
Fort Carroll and the manmade island it occupies are privately owned and not open to the public. Following the abandonment and later service as a lighthouse, proposals for new purposes came and went. One was for a giant statue, like the Statue of Liberty built on the remains of the similarly-unused Fort Wood in New York Harbor. Others included an Alkatraz-like prison, a museum, a casino, and a restaurant. The Army and Coast Guard briefly used the interior for a firing range; it was finally sold in 1958.
9500 North Point Rd, Baltimore, MD 21219
Click for website
The old Fort Howard military base is accessible, but the only facility in use among profuse decaying buildings, is one small, newer-built, out-patient clinic. It sits in the parking area of the vast, vacant Veterans Medical Center. The adjacent Fort Howard Park is reached through a winding road forking off to the east from what was once Fort Howard's main guard gate. This 60-acre area, managed by the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks, is where all the guns were trained to the wide entrance of the Patapsco River, earning it the name : "Bulldog at Baltimore's Gate". Free and open from dawn until dusk, the park has a playground, walking trails, picnic pavilion, grills and fishing. The water surrounding the small pier, which suffered recent storm damage, is rocky and not suitable for any craft. Although there's no designated site for landing, canoeists and kayakers may find a place along the shore to visit the park. The powerhouse and many of the fort's batteries, previously manned by Coast Artillery Corps, can be viewed, although most are covered in foliage. A couple of tired old guns on carriages face the open bay and a few weathered historical markers tell a bit of the story. At nearby North Point Park, on the bay about a mile north of Fort Howard Park, a reenactment of the 1814 Battle of North Point—when the British got the drubbing—is held each September during Defenders Day.
9500 Fort Smallwood Road, Pasadena, MD 21122
Click for website
Fort Smallwood Park, managed by Anne Arundel Department of Recreation and Parks, collects a $6.00 parking fee at the gate. However, those with MVA handicapped tags or permits receive a discount, and military individuals, veterans and their families are admitted free. The well-maintained grounds are open 7 AM until dusk with picnic areas, walking trails, playground, horseshoe pits, birdwatching, volleyball and basketball courts, and an exceptional fishing pier. Swimming is not permitted, but a growing number of car-top boaters (kayakers, canoeists, kite-boarders, windsurfers, etc.) use the small designated beach on the park's eastern side. For groups, the historic cedar pavilion is available by reservation, and only the exterior of the clapboard barracks and Battery Hartshorn can be toured. The 100-acre park will gradually incorporate an additional 235 acres, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg property, located nearby. The park is closed Wednesdays, Thanksgiving and Christmas days.
Diana Prentice is a regular contributor to
Chesapeake Bay Magazine
and cruising editor of the
Guide to Cruising Chesapeake Bay.