Amateur historian dreams of restoring Fort Carroll

June 23, 1992|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

To thousands of motorists who drive across the Key Bridge every day, the curious object 185 feet below resembles a hexagonal vase of bushy green herbs.

From sea level, brooding gray, granite walls rear up from the choppy Patapsco River. Empty gun ports stare sightlessly down zTC the Chesapeake Bay they were built to defend -- although they never had to do so.

Once inside, after tiptoeing across the rusting steel girders that span from the granite landing stage to the arched entrance, the truth of the vegetation on this artificial island becomes clear. Nature is claiming Fort Carroll.

"It's a jungle," said Walter Mathers, of Marley.

An amateur historian and Civil War buff, Mr. Mathers dreams of seeing Fort Carroll restored to its appearance in the late 1840s, after Col. Robert E. Lee, then of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, supervised its construction.

But now, he sees trees entwined by wisteria and poison ivy vines on the parade ground. Bushes, high grass, weeds and even a few colorfulflowers grow wild. Baby peaches sprout on the remaining trees, planted long ago by a former lighthouse keeper. The clapboard lighthouse still stands on Fort Carroll's ramparts.

The surrounding red-brick and granite casemates -- chambers for cannon -- barracks and offices are all but invisible through the nearly impenetrable growth. The tops of the casemates are heavy with vegetation, as are the 1890s gun pits built to house two "disappearing" 12-inch cannons. They were designed to rise up, fire, then lower for concealed reloading.

"I first came here in the early 1970s and it wasn't anything like this," said Mr. Mathers, who works as a railroad brakeman. "Grass was growing on the parade ground and the fruit trees were here, but nothing like this. Now the trees have taken over the place and in time their roots will tear the place apart."

Mr. Mathers suggested that if it were restored, the 3.45-acre fort would make an ideal destination for the thousands of passengers who see the island from Inner Harbor tour boats.

Named in 1850 for Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, original plans for Fort Carroll called for 350 cannons mounted on three tiers. Only a single tier was ever built, and few guns were ever mounted.

Situated seven miles upriver from the Inner Harbor, Fort Carroll followed Fort McHenry as Baltimore's main harbor defense. It was built because ordnance advances after the 1814 British bombardment of Fort McHenry gave ships the ability to lob shells into Baltimore from beyond the range of the fort's guns.

But no attack on Baltimore ever came, and the fort quickly became obsolete. Fort Carroll served various purposes until the end of World War II. Foreign seaman waited there while their ships were fumigated. In 1942, salvagers removed nearly 100 tons of iron -- gun mounts, hinges, a water tower -- to use as scrap in the war effort.

Yet, the fort's picked-over remains still intrigue Mr. Mathers. He notes that Fort Carroll was built on the same plan -- and by some of the same workmen -- as Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C., where the Civil War began.

"It deserves to be preserved as Fort Sumter has been," Mr. Mathers said.

But Fort Carroll's owners don't want to talk about the place and decry any publicity about it.

"It just brings calls and curiosity seekers," said Alan G. Eisenberg, whose father invested thousands of dollars to stabilize the old fort before his plans fell through.

Benjamin N. Eisenberg, a Baltimore lawyer and real estate investor, bought the fort at auction in 1958. He paid $10,010. Initially, he wanted to convert the fort into a restaurant and casino. He based his plan in part on a claim that the island was in Anne Arundel County, where taxes were low and slot machines legal. But in 1962, the Maryland Tax Court ruled that Fort Carroll lies in Baltimore County waters. And the plan died.

Since then, efforts to restore the fort have come and gone.

"There has been no change," said Alan Eisenberg. "Maybe something will come along. We're not interested in anything but something major."

The family has paid taxes on the property for decades -- $374.04 this year -- without any return. Still, Mr. Eisenberg refused to characterize it as a white elephant.

"It's an investment piece of land," he said. "We just haven't found something we're happy with."

When the Eisenbergs had the property on the market in 1980, the Maryland Historical Trust, which considers the fort historically significant, wrote the broker and offered to cooperate with any purchaser's development plans. Nothing happened.

In 1986, Mr. Mathers wrote the Eisenbergs. He asked the family to consider donating the island to the Maryland Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans so the group could turn it into a museum. During a subsequent telephone conversation, the Eisenbergs declined the request, said Mr. Mathers. Despite the rejection, Mr. Mathers said:

"Actually, we owe a great debt to Mr. [Benjamin] Eisenberg and his heirs. . . . Wittingly or unwittingly, they have preserved

Fort Carroll. It has not been demolished."

He also suggested that Fort Carroll has survived because it is only reachable by water. On the mainland at Hawkins Point, the remains of Fort Armistead have become canvasses for graffiti artists.

But, even with all the fort's history, Mr. Mathers concedes that his dream of restoration most likely will remain a dream.

"Tears do not a nation make; time dries them all away. History loses its meaning when pieces of the puzzle go astray," he said, quoting from the American Legion's campaign for the Korean War Memorial, before adding in his own words, "This is one of those pieces and it should not be lost."

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