My Life in Ruins - A Visit to Fort Carroll, Maryland

It's been a couple of weeks since I last went out on the water in my kayak (my trip on the C & O canal where for the first time the boat filled with water - from above) and I figured that since the plan for my upcoming stay on Smith Island later this week was going to involve three days of paddling, I had better get my body a little more prepared - at the very least, get my hands used to holding the paddle again so that I didn't wind up with blisters after the first day. It is always interesting for me that after I decide that I want to go paddling to figure out exactly where I actually want to go - especially since detailed preparations are not something that I am generally very concerned about.

So after strapping the kayak to the roof of my car, remembering to take a canteen for water (I was pretty proud of myself for remembering it this time) and the spray skirt to keep the water out, although no rain was predicted (come to think of it, it wasn't predicted the last time, either), I headed off for the local diner to grab some coffee, some food and to try and figure out where the heck I was going. somewhere between my second cup of coffee and the last vestiges of breakfast I spread out a map in front of me and looked for anything that was blue. My eyes kept drifting towards the area just to the south of Baltimore where the Patapsco River empties out into Chesapeake bay.

I remembered the last time I drove over the bridge that crosses the river and recalled seeing what looked like an old fort on a small island in the middle of the harbor and was curious as to what it might be. I figured that this was enough of a reason to go and see if I could find out. After now having decided where I wanted to go, the next trick was to figure out how to get there.

Luckily, the map revealed what appeared to be a small park (Fort Armistead Park) on the western shore that looked like it might be a place where I could put the boat in the water without having to scale fences, climb walls or some of the other challenges that I have faced in the past. Finding the park without too much trouble I was able to launch the boat only after having to walk across a parking lot strewn with the remnants of what must have been a pretty wild Saturday night beer bash.

Leaving the litter of civilzation behind, I headed out into the channel towards the island that I could vaguely see off in the distance. However, to get from the shore to the island meant that was going to have to cross one of the busiest shipping lanes in the region. Imagine trying to cross eight lanes of an interstate highway during rush hour, on roller skates. That is a little bit how I felt as I watched the seemingly endless parade of boats of all shapes, sizes, colors and with most of the skippers keeping one hand on the tiller and the other firmly grasping an ice cold beer. I began to realize just how tiny my little blue kayak really was and that with the top of my head only 28 inches above the surface of the water, I made a pretty small target (poor choice of word, perhaps). I was forced to alternate between periods of ferocious paddling (when there was a break in the traffic) with periods of madly waving my paddle in the air as a means of saying "hey, you! with the beer in your hand and bikinied babe on your arm........PLEASE look this way for just a second". Aside from the testosterone-powered speedboats that roared past, altering course at seemingly the very last moment possible, there were also the large, not easy to maneuver and even harder to stop freighters and tankers that kept steaming in and out of the harbor. One in particular was fairly high out of the water and was pushing an enormous bow wake that would have been really fun to ride - if I were a porpoise!

After a few close encounters of the almost worst kind I finally came within sight of the island and was a little dismayed to see that it looked exactly like what I imagined a fort should be - inpenetrable. The flanks of the entire island were sheathed in enormous blocks of granite, forming shear walls rising out of the river with the only breaks being the ominous looking steel cannon ports that stared out across the harbor like never blinking eyes.

As I paddled around the island, hundreds of seagulls watched me from the ramparts and from the only structure that I could see behind the fortified walls - a tall wooden tower with a lookout platform at the very top. One seagull after another seemed assigned to sentry duty for no sooner did one bird fly off than another would land to take its place atop the tower. The fort I was soon to discover was built with six sides and I had the misfortune of starting my circumnavigation on side number one. By the time I had gone around 5/6ths of the island, I was beginning to think that the only way to get in was to try and climb through one of the open gun ports. Of course, I am not sure what I would have done with the kayak at that point.

Luckily, as I paddled around the last side of the island, I saw what looked like a second, smaller island a little bit offshore of the large one. As I got closer I saw that this was indeed a landing dock (or what used to be a landing dock) which was connected to the fort by what in earlier days must have been a fairly substantial causeway supported by sturdy steel girders. This causeway lead directly to what looked like the front entrance to a medieval castle lacking only the drawbridge and archers to complete the picture. However, the ravages of time and tide had pretty much dealt a death blow to this causeway, leaving only a few fairly rusty, very narrow and somewhat disfigured beams that I believe any circus high wire artist would think twice about crossing. And as if this weren't enough to discourage visitors, there was a very direct warning painted on the wall alongside the entrance stating in no uncertain terms:


I paddled back and forth in front of the entrance all the while whistling and singing as loudly as I could in an attempt to attract whatever creature might be living on the island while I was still a safe distance away - in the water. However, all that I got for my troubles were some irate seagulls flying a little too closely for my comfort. It was at this point that I had to make one of those critical life decisions. Did I believe the sign and heed its warning or did I trust my instinct and figure that the sign may have been a remnant of earlier times and the guard dog had long since retired to an old age kennel in florida or some equally benign place. From what I could gather, the only thing guarding the island were thousands of very loud, very annoyed seagulls that seemed to have no problem whatsoever with 'irregularity'. In fact, many of the once dark brown granite walls looked more like pure white marble after years of sea gull offerings.

By timing my approach just right, I was able to come alongside what was left of a dock on the smaller island and quickly jump onto the algae-covered (aka slippery) rocks and just barely hang onto the kayak before it was swept away by yet another set of waves created by the passing ships. I hauled the kayak up onto the rocks making sure that it was well out of the reach of any subsequent waves. The last thing that I wanted to do was to be stranded on that island watching my little blue boat sail off into the sunset, without me.

As I stood on the edge of the little island where the steel girders formed the rather tenuous bridge across the waters to the fort, I held my paddle close by my side - just in case the warning sign was real and the dog had less fear than I did of crossing those rickety, old beams. Again I shouted, and again was answered with only the shrieking of the gulls. In true military fashion, the army had taken two very large cannons and stuck them, barrels down into the ground to serve as places for the supply ships to tie off to.

Having (almost) assured myself that the island was indeed deserted, I decided to figure out a way across the beams so that I could explore what looked to me like a very interesting bit of American history. Having been to more than one circus as a child, I always remembered the people who walked across the tightrope carrying a long pole. I figured that although my kayak paddle would certainly qualify as a long pole, I began to wonder whether or not wearing those tight little sequined leotards was also required to assure my safe passage across the beams. If that were the case, then I was seriously out of luck.

Well, I slowly made my way across the beams, still half expecting some seriously pissed off, half-rabid dog to appear at any second, or to have the beam snap in half, dumping me unceremoniosly into the murky waters of Baltimore harbor. Thankfully, neither event transpired and I was able to make it safely across and jumped the last few feet into the entrance of the fort. Just when I was feeling pretty comfortable about the whole thing, I looked down at my feet and noticed that I had just barely missed landing on top of a recently dead (or recently killed) seagull. Having just this past week seen the movie "The Blair Witch Project" I knew that this was NOT a good omen.

I stood in what must have been the main entrance to the fort - a long, dark, brick-lined vault about thirty feet across and fifty feet in length. On either side were two narrow stairways cut into the brick walls leading up onto the ramparts. Feeling a little bit uncomfortable in the darkness of this room, not to mention the rather pungent welcome mat, I headed up the closest stairs and came out upon the top of the fort. I would have loved to have been able to understand what the seagulls were 'saying' as I emerged from the stairs. At first they seemed merely curious, but then once they came to their senses, they realized that they were supposed to run around, squawk, fly off in a huff and poop.

The ramparts circled the entire fort which from above had the appearance of a giant six-sided doughnut. However, after years of being left to its own devices, nature had just about reclaimed the center of the fort, so much so that it was impossible to see from one side to the other. Trees, bushes and vines filled the center of the fort and I was unable to see anything that might have been down there. I would have imagined that the workers who built the fort and the troops that would have been stationed here must have been housed in barracks built in the central part of the island which by now was completely overgrown.

I slowly made my way around the island, watching countless seagulls dart out from under bushes as I approached. Off in the distance I could just barely make out the skyscrapers of downtown Baltimore. After having gone almost halfway around the fort, i came upon a hole in the middle of the rampart where a winding brick stairway lead down below. Deciding to see where it lead, I carefully made my way down the stairs.

Once my eyes had adjusted to what little light that was available, I saw that I was standing in a very long, brick corridor where the cannons must have been housed. Along one side were the openings in the ten foot thick walls where, once the steel doors were opened, would have been placed the muzzles of the guns. I walked over to one of the opened gunports half expecting to see one of the iron clad gunships of the Civil War steaming past, smokestacks belching forth huge clouds of black smoke, gun turrets blazing and the Confederate flag flying proudly, but was brought back to reality by the sight and sound (I think they had disco playing on their stereo) of a large, glaringly white floating fiberglass fiasco. In a few of the gun bays I could still see the remnants of the wooden caisons that held the cannons.

Opposite the gunports, the corridor opened out towards the central part of the fort which was filled with vegetation of every kind imaginable. In many ways it reminded me of an old Romanesque catherdral with the heavy stone arches and long, narrow passageways. I could just as easily imagine monks walking along the corridors on their way to morning prayers as I could envision soldiers marching off to battle. I was very curious about what might have been in the center of the fort so I walked around the entire inner perimeter hoping to find a place where the vegetation was sparce enough to allow me to make my way in. Unfortunately, the overgrowth was just too thick to allow it and the thought of forcing my way through all the dense underbrush in just a pair of cut-offs was not something I really wanted to do.

Also by this point it began to dawn on me that perhaps some passing boat might take an interest in my kayak thinking that maybe it had washed up on the island and decide to take it home for a souvenir. I really did not want to have to figure out how to survive on seagull until some other foolhardy soul decided to explore the island..

Having now decided that it was time to return to my boat, I realized that I would have to find my way out of here first. Looking both ways all I could see were seemingly endless corridors. I started walking in the direction I remembered coming from but couldn't remember exactly where the stairs to the ramparts were. I finally came upon what I thought was another stairway although it was much darker than the one I had used before. It was built into one of the walls and I cautiously made my way into what I believed was the opening. However, the further in I walked, the darker it became until I could no longer see anything. It finally dawned on me that this really wasn't a way out but rather was probably one of those very heavily built rooms where they used to store the gunpowder and cannonballs. Just as this realization made its way into my brain, I heard something scamper across the floor at my feet. Being in a dark room, on a deserted island, wearing shorts and sandles, without a flashlight, holding nothing but a paddle while things unknown crawled around on the floor all around me was something that I realized was really NOT something that I enjoyed. With as much haste and stealth as I could muster, I backed out of that room and into the relative comfort of the passageway. I won't say that I began to panic, but I suddenly realized that I had absolutely no good idea of how long I had been on the island and really began to wonder whether or not my boat was going to be there when I finally did manage to find my way out.

After it seemed as if I had walked for miles, I came to what this time I knew was a stairway and with great leaps made my way back up into the sunlight and seagulls. However, in all my wanderings I had somehow managed to make my way clear around to the other side of the island, opposite where I had left the boat. So with a feeling of mild apprehension I quickly made my way around the ramparts until I finally saw the little landing dock. However, from where I stood I could not see my kayak. All I saw were a bunch of large powerboats cruising around the island. This did not bode well. Just then I realized that I was approaching the landing dock from the opposite side and that was the reason (I hoped) that I couldn't see my kayak. As I made my way around to the other side I was greatly relieved to see the little blue bow of my boat sticking up in the air just where I had left it. Finding the stairway that I had originally come up was easier this time and I made my way back down into the entrance hall. I was somewhat releived to see that the 'welcome mat' was still there and after crossing the beams once more I made my way back to my boat and managed to get it and myself back into the water without too much excitement.

Rather than heading directly back to the park and my car, I decided to paddle over to a small cove that I had seen as I crossed the bridge earlier that morning. Although I couldn't be certain, it looked as if there might have been a couple of half-sunken ships in the cove. Since today seemed to have already been ruined, there was no reason why I shouldn't just make a wreck out of the rest of it. Once again I had to cross the shipping lane and once again had far more than my fair share of views of the front ends of overpowered and under-controlled speedboats. I think I had seriously underestimated the distance to the cove because it felt like I had to paddle for hours before finally reaching the bridge that I had crossed that morning.

As I paddled into the cove, off in the distance I saw the unmistakable shapes of what must have been the once proud bows of a pair of old wooded ships - perhaps they were once lumber or cargo schooners. As I got closer they towered over me like a couple of dinosaurs from some long ago time. While their bows and the enormous rudder of one of them still stood majestically erect, their entire middle sections had collapsed into a heap of broken frames and beams while the rusted iron fastenings that once held the ship together protruded from the planks like so many broken and splintered bones. There is something very sad about seeing once strong and proud ships dragged off into the shallows to die. It is one thing to see a ship that has been cast upon the shore by a violent storm knowing that she fought for survival until the very end. But these ships ended their lives in a far different way.

I could find nothing that would help me identify what the larger of the two ships might have been named, but on the smaller one, five faded letters hung tenouously from the bow.

I tried to put together all the possible combinations of letters that I thought might spell something that could possibly be a name, but was not able to come up with any at the time. I'm sure there must be records of the ships that used to carry cargo in and out of Baltimore, so perhaps it might be possible to trace the history of this ship. As I paddled back out of the cove, I passed another ship of an earlier time and felt an overwhelming need to get out of that place. It felt almost as if I had stumbled upon some long forgotten graveyard, where the all the years of memories, dreams, hopes and fears of the people who had walked the decks of those ships still lingered.

Later that evening, I decided to see if I could find any information about the fort that I had visited which might reveal something about its history. After many searches and many more dead ends, I came across the following tantalizing bit of information:

    "An early unusual landmark to dot this area was Fort Carroll, constructed in the Patapsco River off Hawkins Point in 1848 under the supervision of the young Colonel Robert E. Lee of the Army Corps of Engineers. With a hexagonal site of 3.4 acres, 10 foot thick and 40 foot high walls, and 350 guns mounted in three tiers, the Fort was remarkably similar to Charleston's more famous Fort Sumter. Work was later suspended because of uncontrollable settling and the Fort remains an incomplete ruin today, in the shadow of the new Outer Harbor crossing."

UPDATE: 29 May 2006

During a recent kayaking marathon paddle around Baltimore Harbor over the Memorial Day weekend, I decided to swing past Fort Carroll again to see what, if any, changes have taken place. The first thing that I noticed when approaching the island was what seemed to be a large increase in the number of nesting birds, both gulls on the hillsides and hundreds of cormorants in the trees. It looked as if every free space on the island was taken up by a nesting bird, and many of the nests contained a couple of chicks being actively fed by a parent. I had hoped to be able to get on the island again for a quick look around but when I paddled around to the eastern side of the fort where the entrance was, I noticed that the steel girders than had previously provided a somewhat precarious, but nevertheless possible, access to the entrance, had completely rusted away and the one remaining girder was literally hanging together by a thread and only someone with a death wish would have tried to cross it. Therefore, unless someone is interested in rapelling onto the island, Fort Carroll is now literally, for the birds. Below are a few pictures taken of the fort during this visit.

More information about the history and current situation of Fort Carroll can be found at: