Maryland seeks historic status for Fort Carroll

Abandoned 19th-century landmark once seen as a casino site

  • Fort Carroll in 2009.
Fort Carroll in 2009. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun )
April 13, 2013|By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun

When she thinks of Fort Carroll, the abandoned 19th-century military installation in the Patapsco River, Beverly Eisenberg thinks of her grandfather — and of duckpin bowling balls.

She visited the six-sided artificial island as a little girl, just a few years after her grandfather bought the place in 1958 hoping to turn it into a destination with a slots casino, hotel and restaurants. He was making cast-iron facsimiles of the cannons that once armed the fort, and the cannons needed cannon balls — duckpin balls that she would paint black and set up at the guns to help Benjamin N. Eisenberg nurture a dream.

His casino plan ultimately ended foiled when a judge ruled that the abandoned fort is in Baltimore County, not Anne Arundel, where slots were legal at the time. Other development proposals, both public and private, fell through over the years, and the island has been overrun by thousands of birds. But members of the Eisenberg family still own Fort Carroll, a 3.45-acre island that lies southeast of the Francis Scott Key Memorial Bridge, and they still have hopes for it.

Beverly Eisenberg said the family supports an effort by the state-run Maryland Historical Trust to have the fort, which was built in the 1850s, placed on the National Register of Historic Places, creating financial incentives for restoration. Just days ago, the private organization Preservation Maryland announced that the stone structure –- a project managed at the start by future Confederate general Robert E. Lee -– was on its annual Endangered Maryland list.

"We're very excited about" the National Register application, said Eisenberg, a Baltimore architect. "We would love to see the fort restored. It's something we've tried over the years to make happen."

Beyond that, she said she is "not at liberty" to elaborate on any plans. It is unclear how much it would cost to restore the fort, which is assessed at $31,500, with a real estate tax of about $380 per year.

The fort has no colorful battle history to brag about. But preservationists argue for its significance as a fine example of cutting-edge civil engineering of the mid-19th century, as an artifact of a period of national defense buildup and for its association with Lee.

Patricia L. Bentz, executive director of the Preservation Alliance of Baltimore County, which pushed to have Fort Carroll included on the Endangered Maryland list, said the group has modest ambitions for the fort.

"Right now the main goal is to stabilize the fort so it does not continue to deteriorate," Bentz said. As it stands, she said, the fort is undergoing "demolition by neglect, I hate to say that."

The parade ground where Benjamin Eisenberg once stood — a 1961 photograph shows him next to one of his cannons, a small pile of what could be those shiny, painted duckpin balls in the background — has long since been overgrown with brush. Bentz's organization and others fear that tree roots growing into the spaces between the stones could destroy the arches that support the roof.

"You see the trees growing through the masonry," said Baltimore developer William Struever, who visited the island many times when his company had a lease and option to buy it more than 10 years ago. "The roofs will collapse, and that will be the end of Fort Carroll. …I think it's a very real threat."

Struever said Fort Carroll is built with "absolutely just the most beautiful masonry I've seen anywhere in the world. …It's unbelievable. It's a magical place."

He envisioned an inn and conference center, perhaps alongside an environmental center operated in cooperation with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Ultimately, he said, other company projects diverted attention from resolving the questions of access to the fort and how to work in harmony with birds that since the late 1980s have adopted the fort as a nesting ground.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources is about to begin its periodic bird census there, but in 2008 officials counted 10 varieties, including egrets, herons, ibises and cormorants, said David F. Brinker, a ecologist for the agency. Counting breeding pairs and the average number of chicks, that made for a bird population of 4,000 in the height of summer.

In winter, though, the birds head south, leaving empty nests behind. Brinker said nothing in state law would prevent clearing the brush and empty nests in the winter, but such a move might be blocked by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty, which has protected birds since 1918 and is enforced by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Scott Johnston, a branch chief in the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Division of Migratory Birds, said under the law, for the birds on Fort Carroll "it's OK to destroy a nest if there are no birds associated with that nest, no eggs, no young, and the birds are not building it." He said a different standard would apply to endangered or threatened species, and to bald and golden eagles.

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