Fort Morgan and Fort Gaines have seemingly always been on divergent paths.
Outwardly, they appear similar. Both are classic, five-sided, 19th century masonry coastal fortifications. As historical sites, they both battle harsh conditions that are extremely hostile to preservation efforts. They have a shared history in the Civil War’s largest naval battle.
Yet their historic reputations are considerably different. Fort Morgan’s history, in some sense, dates back to the American Revolution. It withstood a horrific naval bombardment and held out longer against a vastly superior enemy during the epic Civil War Battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864.
Fort Gaines wasn’t completed until after the Civil War started and its garrison was criticized, some say unfairly, for surrendering too quickly.
Their present paths also differ. Fort Morgan is under state management, while Fort Gaines is operated by a local board. Public perception is that Fort Gaines is in better condition and, whether rightly or wrongly, its local management gets the credit.
“Dauphin Island took over Fort Gaines and they look like they’re doing a hell of a job,” Ken Steiner, a Fort Morgan resident, said, referring to the Dauphin Island Park and Beach Board.
Fort Gaines wins the eye test over Fort Morgan in that it appears to be in better shape. But it’s hard to say whether that’s actually true. Beneath the surface and outside the walls, Fort Gaines faces its own set of challenges.
Just before paying to enter Fort Morgan, a visitor can look to the right and see a dilapidated fishing pier closed to the public. It’s at the heart of Steiner’s beef with how the state historic site is cared for. He’s been a regular visitor to the Fort Morgan area since the 1950s and spent much of his time on the Fort Morgan pier. It was a hub of activity among locals. Tourists came as well.
“It was used quite a bit,” said Steiner, who now resides in the area year round. “We’d go down at night, drink beer and throw a cast net for mullet. It was like a community.”
Today, that community’s focal point is closed and has been for more than a year. A sign at the pier’s entrance says it is closed indefinitely and a few feet beyond, a wooden wall with a “No Trespassing” sign blocks its span from anyone who might feign illiteracy or be inclined to ignore the posted warnings.
The problem is that it’s no longer safe. Baldwin County engineers surveyed it and found the old wooden pier to be structurally unsound, with failing pilings. The price tag for replacing it ranges from $350,000 to $500,000, according to state legislator Steve McMillan. Mike Bailey, historic site director for Fort Morgan, puts it even higher at about $800,000.
Some might wonder if the pier is representative of the historic site’s overall condition. Bailey says that’s not the case.
“The fort is stable,” Bailey said. “We’re not funded like we’d like to be funded but our funding is stable. We haven’t had any cuts.”
The Alabama Historical Commission operates Fort Morgan as a historic landmark. The pier, Bailey said, is an anomaly. It was originally built atop old wooden barges which, along with the pier’s wooden pilings, are deteriorating.
While the boat landing next to the pier is owned and operated by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the pier, like the rest of Fort Morgan, is operated by the Alabama Historical Commission. And fishing piers aren’t among the commission’s primary responsibilities.
“The fishing pier is important and it would be good to have it,” said Bailey, who works for the Alabama Historical Commission. “Our mandate is to take care of the National Historic Landmark — and the pier’s not part of it,”
Maintaining the fort is its mission.
“It’s our responsibility to preserve it,” Bailey said. “It’s also our responsibility to interpret the events that occurred here.”
FORT MORGAN FACES FUNDING CHALLENGES
Fort Morgan has two dedicated sources of funding: its gate receipts and funds from a Baldwin County tax on leased heavy equipment. Gate receipts vary but average in the neighborhood of $480,000 per year, Bailey said. The lease tax generates about $400,000 per year.
The lease tax serves as a capital fund. Its proceeds are dedicated to physical improvements and preservation, along with educational and interpretive exhibits. For instance, there’s an ongoing effort to document for the first time the Union siege lines from the Civil War battle. Those details were largely lost over the years and are as important to understanding the fort’s Civil War history as the Confederate fortifications, which ordinarily get the most attention.
But there’s no money for pier repairs, Bailey said. The problem is that with a structure more than 175 years old, there’s never a shortage of maintenance and restoration projects.
“If you have X number of dollars and you have the fort and the pier, the fort is going to get the money,” Bailey explained.
Providing people with a place to fish just isn’t part of the Alabama Historical Commission’s mission. Bailey and the Historical Commission would be happy for some other agency to take on that responsibility.
With no railings, the pier was perfect for throwing a cast net, said Paul Barefield, president of the Fort Morgan Civic Association, which has been working with legislators and local officials to reopen or replace the pier. Its closing, he said, followed an incident where someone fell into the water and drowned. Barefield suspects the closing reflects the Historical Commission’s desire to protect itself from liability.
At one point, legislators discussed making the pier the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ responsibility. It would be a natural fit since the agency already operates the pier at Gulf State Park and oversees public lands for hunting and fishing.
“I’d love to help out if we had the money,” Commissioner of Conservation Gunter Guy said. “We don’t have any money either.”
The department’s state parks division had to close parks this year and has made cutbacks in all of its divisions. It doesn’t have the money to take on an expensive project.
The pier project definitely wouldn’t be cheap. Part of the problem is easily visible with just a cursory glance beneath the pier.
“It was originally built on top of old barges,” Baldwin County Commissioner Skip Gruber said. “That’s part of the problem with it.”
The barges and the rest of the structure have deteriorated to a state that would require them to be removed. Gruber believes the sensible thing would be to replace it with a concrete structure.
“If it’s concrete, it’s forever,” he said.
Gruber had hoped the County Commission could intervene but it simply can’t afford to replace and operate the pier. He hopes the state might use money from the BP settlement or oil royalties to replace the pier, similarly to $1.8 million of BP money that was recently allocated to restore the governor’s beachfront mansion.
McMillan, the state House of Representatives member representing the area, said Baldwin County’s legislative delegation has made the pier one of its priorities. But a plan to address it is still in the exploratory stage. Legislators still haven’t identified a funding source for the money needed.
“Repair is probably out of the question,” McMillan said. “Removing it would be one of the major expenses.”
While it might be cheaper to build a new pier next to the dilapidated structure, environmental considerations would preclude that, McMillan said.
SITE’S HISTORY DATES TO AMERICAN REVOLUTION
The pier is a small part of a 580-acre historic site that includes six historic buildings in addition to Fort Morgan. While it’s best known for its Civil War exploits, it has a significant history both before and after the Civil War, and the Historical Commission’s job is to preserve and document all of it.
The first fortifications were built on Mobile Point in 1780 during the American Revolution. Fort Boyer was constructed on Mobile Point during the War of 1812 and two battles were fought with the British there. In fact, it was the site of the last battle of that war when the British forces Andrew Jackson defeated at New Orleans captured Fort Boyer on their return trip after the war had officially ended, but before news of it arrived from Europe. The Marquis de Lafayette later visited the site.
Construction began on Fort Morgan in the 1830s. The Battle of Mobile Bay’s significance was considerable because it, along with Gen. William T. Sherman’s march through Georgia, ensured Abraham Lincoln’s re-election in 1864, Bailey said.
The fort was modified with reinforced concrete gun emplacement during the 1890s to become a coastal artillery installation. It was an active military post through World War I and despite being closed in the 1920s, was reactivated during World War II.
The Historical Commission aims to document each of these periods, not just the Civil War, Bailey said. Research is a form of preservation and costs money as well. In addition to the lease-tax money, the Historical Commission works with private organizations like the Sons of the American Revolution to get funding for those efforts, Bailey said.
Physical restoration can take on more urgency. Water is one of the fort’s biggest enemies. The fortifications are made of masonry walls filled with sand. When rain falls on top of the walls, water filters down into the sand. If the water has nowhere to go, it will wick into the brick and deteriorate the masonry.
“From day one, the army fought drainage problems and wickage problems,” Bailey said, laughing. “The engineers were complaining about it in the 1830s.”
Engineers built drainage systems into the walls but they had long deteriorated and become blocked. To solve the problem, the bricks and sand were removed and the drainage system reconstructed. It not only solved the problem but revealed historical details about the fort that were previously unknown.
“We actually saw how that drainage system worked,” Bailey said. “There were no [written] plans that showed how the drainage system worked.”
Other projects are designed to improve the safety of visitors. On the west wall, new handrails and a board walkway over Battery Duportal, an 1890s era fortification, were installed. Naval bronze handrails designed to last 200 years were installed to replace deteriorating steel handrails.
But problems at the fort must be chipped away a little at a time. And not all of them are so glamorous. The museum building needs a new roof and the fort’s 50-year-old septic system must be replaced. They are the kind of infrastructure improvements that must be done but typically go unseen and unappreciated by the public.
The coastal environment is extremely harsh, deteriorating wood, metal and masonry. But Fort Morgan is fortunate in one regard. The fort is now farther from the water’s edge than it was during the Civil War. In fact, on the fort’s west side, Bailey points to a strip of land between a narrow dirt road and the water.
“That’s about where Farragut’s ships were during the Battle of Mobile Bay,” Bailey said. Sand has built up on the west side so erosion is not threatening the fort.
The same is not true across the bay on Dauphin Island. If it weren’t for a rip-rap jetty, Fort Gaines’ east wall might have already toppled into the water. Fort blacksmith and historian Ralph Oalmann points to water to the south where new rip-rap jetties are planned, and notes the shoreline was probably 400-500 yards farther away when he first came to the fort in the late 1980s.
Oalmann blamed the problem on ship channel dredging interfering with the Island’s natural sand replenishment. The sand replenishment flows from east to west, so Mobile Point in front of Fort Morgan continues to grow. But allegedly, the ship channel prevents sand from reaching Dauphin Island. For now the jetty has stemmed the deterioration but it will continue on the south side if unchecked, he said.
Oalmann operates a working blacksmith’s shop inside Fort Gaines. Pennsylvania bituminous coal fills the brick room with a pungent odor as it burns slowly in a forge he rebuilt. Next door, the fort’s bakery features working brick ovens rebuilt by volunteer labor.
But volunteer labor can’t fix everything. Ironically, the Civil War-era parts of the fort are in better condition than the later additions. The 1890s era reinforced concrete gun emplacements on the east wall are in particularly bad condition. Oalmann pulls a softball-sized chunk of concrete out of one wall and holds it up before replacing it.
He points through a doorway to a powder magazine where there is a huge crack in the ceiling and wall, two inches wide and perhaps 30 feet long. The entire structure is splitting in half. Oalmann isn’t sure it can be fixed but does believe it can be stabilized.
The Dauphin Island Park and Beach Board, a quasi-governmental agency created in 1954 with members appointed by the Mobile County Commission, operates the fort and other public facilities on Dauphin Island. Oalmann believes it’s a better way to “run a railroad” than depending on a state agency.
“This is one of the better-maintained forts,” Oalmann said. “That’s because federal, state and local municipalities don’t have anything to do with it. When there’s an overage of funds, the money can’t be pulled away and used somewhere else.”
Fort Gaines operates strictly on gate receipts, amounting to almost $422,000 in fiscal year 2015, which ended in October. It receives no state or federal funding outside of the occasional grant.
“When there’s a good year, things get fixed,” Oalmann said. “In a bad year, there’s no money.”
But Oalmann believes Gaines is better off than Fort Morgan. For one thing, Fort Morgan took a much more severe pounding during the Civil War bombardment. But he also thinks Gaines’ funding offers advantages.
“We’re always doing something to it,” Oalmann said. “Poor old Fort Morgan barely has enough money to keep the grass mowed.”
That doesn’t mean Fort Gaines is flush with money. The salt air deteriorates the mortar between the bricks so the masonry is in constant need of repointing. Up on the bastions, the fort’s guns are mounted on rotting wood carriages.
“It’s just a real harsh environment,” Oalmann said. “It rots wood, it rusts metal and it eats away at brick and mortar. There pretty much isn’t a place in this fort that couldn’t use some help. It’s what I call fair condition. There’s a lot of stuff that if it isn’t fixed soon, it’ll fall apart.”
Repairs like the concrete gun emplacements would require major work and lots of money. That isn’t available right now. Until it is, Oalmann and others will take on what they can to preserve history a little at a time.