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Monday, September 13, 2004

Ivan heads for Fort Morgan

The latest National Weather Service map shows hurricane Ivan hitting the continental US at Gulf Shores, Alabama at 2AM on Thursday. Gulf Shores is a 25-mile-long peninsula dividing the Gulf of Mexico on the south from Mobile Bay on the north. On the Gulf side are beautiful white sand beaches and lots of hotels, condos, and vacation homes on stilts hoping that Ivan washes beneath them and not through them.

At the western tip of the peninsula is Fort Morgan, a star-shaped, earth-sheltered masonry fort built between 1819 and 1834 as part of U.S. coastal defense. A similar fort, Fort Gaines, is on the other side of the mouth of Mobile Bay on Dauphin Island, three miles away. During the Civil War, Fort Morgan was taken over by Confederate troops, who held it until the Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864. Union Admiral Farragut ringed his ships around the fort, bombarding it for weeks before it surrendered. The central citadel of the fort was destroyed, along with any auxiliary buildings, but the main external part of the fort survived due to its sand ramparts.

That was the only actual fighting that Fort Morgan ever saw, although it was garrisoned until well into the 20th century. It was used for training, and in the early 1900's a substantial number of wood frame barracks, officer's houses, and other buildings were built just down the beach from the Fort. Most of these had been blown away by one hurricane or another by the time I started working for the Alabama Historical Commission (or Hysterical Commission, as some of us called it) in 1984. That didn't stop my boss, who thought that early 20th century wood buildings were every bit as important to restore as the early 19th century fort, even though there are only a few such forts in the U.S., and fewer still that have actually been in battles, while there are thousands of early 20th century frame houses all over the country. So, by the time I first visited Fort Morgan, one of these houses had been restored and was being used as a restaurant. There was an enlisted barracks building next to it which didn't have any glass in the windows and which was otherwise in pretty bad shape which he intended to spend over $1 million in AHC money to restore.

Impertinent as I was, I suggested to him that maybe spending $1 million on a wood building on the beach in a hurricane zone might not be the best idea, given that most of its neighbors had already been blown away in previous hurricanes. He was aghast that his new preservation architect (me) would suggest that the barracks was not of enough value to be preserved. He was the boss, so he won the argument. But before work began, a hurricane came by and spun off a tornado which completely destroyed the barracks, sparing the restaurant. I don't know if the restaurant still survives (and the web has been amazingly unhelpful--the AHC web site is almost entirely information free, although it is a lot of work discovering that). If it does, it may be in its last week.