A visit to Florida's Fort Clinch State Park on Amelia Island is like a trip to 1864


November 20, 1994|By Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

Q: We take a trip around Florida every year, usually late in the fall. I'd like to include some of the state parks this year. Any ideas?

A: Florida's 113 state parks offer good beaches, walking trails, historic and archaeological sites, springs, wild animal habitats, and venues for swimming, diving and boating. About half have campgrounds and eight have rental cabins.

Fort Clinch State Park on Amelia Island is as far north as you can get in Florida, a place where visitors can look across Cumberland Sound and see Georgia.

It's always 1864 there. If you don't believe that, just ask the man who meets you, wearing a Union Army uniform. He'll tell you he's Sgt. G. W. Berninger, a blacksmith with the 1st New York Volunteer Engineers. The engineers are there, he says, to complete the fort that the Union reoccupied after the Confederates left it in 1862.

Mr. Berninger is really a park ranger, but he won't say so. He'll talk a blue streak and complain in normal soldierly fashion about the shortage of materials that's holding up the construction work, about the food, and especially about the fort's four washerwomen.

These women, he says, make $26 a month for working only 10 hours a day, six days a week, and can earn extra money for making and selling candles and lye soap. Sergeants like him make only $17 a month, Mr. Berninger complains, and don't even get any whiskey unless they're sick, in which case they get four ounces a day. Food is mostly bread, salt pork and dried vegetables.

The complement at the fort in 1864 was 250 men, but visitors today will usually find only two on hand, except for the first weekend of every month when rangers re-enact the Union occupation of the 1860s, or during May and October when Confederate re-enactors stage a full-garrison replay.

The sergeant shows visitors around the old five-sided masonry fort that was never completed. It was begun in 1847 by the federal government as part of a planned series of forts to protect strategic areas along the coast.

Union troops left it unprotected when the war started. Confederates held it for a year, then abandoned it as Yankee gunboats arrived. Union forces took it back with orders to complete construction, which was to be the job of the New York engineers. Development of new cannon, though, made the fort's masonry fortifications obsolete.

Candlelight tours of the fort are available by reservation, and the park offers camping, fishing, shelling and hiking.

Admission to the state park is $3.25 per vehicle, to the fort itself, $1 per person. The $3.25-per-car entrance fee is standard throughout the state park system.

Another reason to visit Fort Clinch is Amelia Island itself. Amelia, east of Jacksonville, is uncrowded (16,000 residents) and serene, with good beaches, many bed and breakfasts, inns, and two notable resorts, the Ritz Carlton and Amelia Island Plantation. The 19th-century fishing village of Fernandina Beach, the county seat, has a 50-block historic district.

For information about Amelia, including lodging, contact the Amelia Island/Fernandina Beach Chamber of Commerce, 102 Centre St., Fernandina Beach, Fla. 32034, (904) 261-3248 or (800) 2-AMELIA.

For further information about Florida parks, send for a free copy of "Florida State Parks . . . The Real Florida," a guide compiled by the state's Department of Natural Resources, Division of Recreation and Parks, MS 535, 3900 Commonwealth Blvd., Tallahassee, Fla. 32399-3000. Also request a rate sheet for park admissions and campgrounds.

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