May 14, 2006

Hurricanes, Shortfalls Endanger Alabama and Florida

FORT MORGAN, Ala. -- Fort Morgan was the latest in military technology when it was built in 1834: The five-sided bulwark had a dry moat, thick brick walls and dozens of cannons to ward off invaders at Mobile Bay, a vital port on the northern Gulf Coast.

Since then, the fort has survived 172 years and a furious shelling by Union forces during the Civil War. It was part of the nation's coastal defense system all the way through World War II.

But preservationists say hurricanes and funding shortfalls now threaten the place that inspired Union Admiral David Farragut to order: "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" and played a role in Abraham Lincoln's re-election as president.

Imposing as it appears, Fort Morgan is among 10 sites placed on a list of endangered battlefields by the Civil War Preservation Trust, a private group dedicated to saving the places where North fought South more than 140 years ago.

The director of Fort Morgan said being included in a list with better-known historic sites like Gettysburg, Pa., can only help the fight to preserve the isolated fort, located on a peninsula that juts into the Gulf of Mexico.

"We need help," said Blanton Blankenship, historic site manager at Fort Morgan. "We hope that just awareness that we need help, that the fort is significantly in danger, will raise the awareness of people that we are in danger of losing a national treasure."

Operated by the state, Fort Morgan typically gets about 100,000 visitors a year. Officials say it's not in danger of collapsing anytime soon.

But walk through the fort with someone who knows what to look for, like Blankenship, and the signs of trouble are easy to see:

Storm surge from Hurricane Ivan in 2004 damaged the thick, iron hinges on the wooden doors to the fort and left waist-deep seawater inside the fort for two weeks. The roiling water and wind destroyed a latrine building built in 1905, when about 250 troops were still stationed there after the Spanish-American War.

Cracks up to three inches wide line the ceilings of arched rooms called casemates, some of which were damaged during days of Union shelling in 1864. In one room, red bricks hang loose from the ceiling. Workers normally use sawhorses to keep visitors out of the area.

What could be the fort's biggest long-term problem is evident inside the casemates, which once housed everything from cannons to food supplies. Red brick walls are coated with thick, white lime deposits that have leached out of the mortar as water seeped in from above.

Someday, Blankenship said, all the mortar will be gone and entire rooms could collapse.

"It will be 100, 150 years. It'll be on someone else's watch," he said.

Aside from structural problems, state funding shortages mean there sometimes aren't enough workers to perform basic maintenance like trimming grass and conducting tours. The fort's museum is small, and old wooden buildings built in the early 1900s are in bad need of paint.

A spokesman for the Civil War preservation group, Jim Campi, said inadequate funding for historic landmarks has become more of a problem nationwide as state and federal budgets tightened.

Other sites are better maintained than Fort Morgan, he said, and haven't had to face the twin of assaults of hurricanes Ivan and Katrina in successive years.

"I don't think it's in anybody's interest for that fort to wind up as a pile of bricks," said Campi. The trust can help build interest in Civil War sites and bring together preservation groups but doesn't have the money to take over Fort Morgan from the state, he said.

Built after the War of 1812, Fort Morgan was completed in 1834. State militia seized the fort from a federal caretaker in 1861, and Confederate forces held it for most of the war.

The fort was proven obsolete on August 1864, when Union forces led by Farragut steamed past it into Mobile during the Battle of Mobile Bay. Faced with fire from the fort's cannons and mines, Farragut famously said: "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!"

Ed Bearss, a former chief historian for the National Park Service, said the Union victory at Mobile Bay was key because it provided "a light at the end of the tunnel" for Lincoln, who might not have won a second term as president without a string of Union triumphs.

"The road to Lincoln's re-election began at Mobile Bay and Fort Morgan," he said.

The fort was manned on and off through World War II before being deactivated and turned over to the state in 1946.