Tales of forgotten forts

May 23, 1994

Everyone knows about Fort McHenry -- and how Francis Scott Key was so moved after seeing the Old Glory still flying over it after a night of bombardment by the British in 1814 that he wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner."

But Fort McHenry, built between 1775 and 1794, was just one of a network of forts built over the years to defend Baltimore.

In addition to that restored fort, remnants of four others still remain: Fort Howard at North Point in Baltimore County; Fort Armistead at Hawkins Point in the city; Fort Smallwood in Anne Arundel County and Fort Carroll, a small artificial island in the Patapsco River next to the Francis Scott Key Memorial Bridge.

An article in the April issue of Anne Arundel County History Notes by Lt. Col. Merle T. Cole chronicles Fort Smallwood's military mission. It is an eye-opener to learn how recently in history that Smallwood and the other three forts were constructed.

While Fort Carroll was constructed between 1847 and 1868, land for Forts Howard, Armistead and Smallwood was not acquired until 1897, according to Colonel Cole.

A frantic building program then ensued to get them ready for the impending Spanish-American War, which began a year later.

Colonel Cole writes of a development that must sound incredible to today's Americans: Fort Carroll served during those hostilities as control station for the electrically detonated minefield planted in the Patapsco River channels.

Imagine, explosive mines in the Baltimore Harbor a century ago!

Forts Smallwood and Armistead were decommissioned and sold to Baltimore City in 1927 for use as waterfront parks. Fort Howard was turned over to the Veterans Administration in 1940 and a hospital was constructed there.

Fort Carroll remained federal property until 1958, when it was declared surplus and sold.

An early private owner fancied it as a perfect place for a gambling casino. But when a court ruled that it was in Baltimore County and not in Anne Arundel, where gambling laws were more liberal, he gave up on the project. It now sits in the shipping channel, its brick battlements crumbling as growing trees gradually take command.

As small-craft excursion boats increasingly ply the Inner Harbor, perhaps the old fort will have a new future as a tourist attraction.

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