15 March 2011

Fort Macon and the Carolina coast

The place where I was born and grew up in North Carolina is more water than land. As sea levels rise over the next 100 or 200 years, it will most likely disappear under the waves. Already, a few years ago, I noticed that at high tide, salt water was coming up out of the storm drains into the streets down at the waterfront. It wasn't a lot of water, but it was an ominous sign, I thought.

The old town here is called Beaufort, and pronounced more or less as in French: [BO-furt]. In South Carolina, there's a also a coastal town named Beaufort, but they pronounce the name as if they were in England: [BYOO-furt]. Beaufort, N.C., was founded in the early 1700s and was at first called Fishtowne. It has a harbor that could accommodate ocean-going vessels back then.

A lot of what looks like land on this map of Carteret County,
in North Carolina, is really salt marshes.

Here in N.C., the newer town is called Morehead City. John M. Morehead was a governor of North Carolina in the middle of the 19th century. Before he had the land that is now the town of Morehead developed back then, it was known as Shepard's Point, named after a prominent family that had settled here. Now Morehead City is one of North Carolina's two ports that can receive ocean-going ships. The railroad from Raleigh ends here.

Carteret County was named for a member of an
Anglo-Norman family who was one of its founders.

One of the main landmarks in the area is Fort Macon, located on a barrier island across the sound (or bay) from the towns on the mainland. Fort Macon was built in the 19th century to guard the inlet — that's a place where there's a break in the long string of sandy barrier islands that shield the N.C. mainland from ocean waves and destructive storms — through which sailing vessels passed to get to the ports.

Fort Macon was built, enlarged, and improved
over the course of the 19th century

Fort Macon was a strategic point during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. It was held by Union forces — that was the North — for most of the war, after they defeated the Confederate forces — the South — in a battle early in the war. I think many of the locals, who were descendants of settlers who had moved down the coast from New England over the previous 200 years, were Union " loyalists." I'm not certain of that though. The whole issue is still a political and cultural hot potato for many.

Inside the old fort

Fort Macon is now a North Carolina State Park. It is one of the most popular parks in the state, and was the second one created after the park at Mount Mitchell, the highest mountain in the Appalachian chain, in far western N.C. The old brick fort at Fort Macon has been restored over the years, and nowadays there's a new visitor's center with more and more elaborate displays explaining the history of the fort, the life of the people who lived and served there over the decades, the local geography, and the local animal and plant life.

The fort served the military from the 1830s until,
about 1900, and again during World War II.

An earlier fort on the site now occupied by Fort Macon, at the eastern end of the barrier island called Bogue Banks, was built in the early 1800s. It saw action during the War of 1812 with Great Britain. Called Fort Hampton, it was abandoned after that war and by 1825, coastal erosion and a strong hurricane had caused the whole masonry structure to be swallowed up by the sea.

Looking out from the upper level of the fort across the inlet
toward the next island in the barrier chain, Shackleford Banks
You can click the mouse on the pictures to enlarge them.

Fort Macon was built shortly afterward. The federal government in Washington had seen that coastal defenses were inadequate, and as a result a number of fortifications were built up and down the East Coast during those years. At the time, Beaufort was North Carolina's only deep-water port, and it needed defending. Fort Macon was garrisoned in 1834.

The fort was named in honor of one of North Carolina's most prominent statesmen of the time, Nathaniel Macon, who served as a federal Congressman, as Speaker of the U.S. House for six years, and then as a U.S. Senator. In the early 1840s, a young Robert E. Lee, later to become a famous general in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, initially engineered a series of jetties to control beach erosion — inlets in the string of barrier islands are notoriously unstable — and the fort was enlarged and improved over the next 10 years.

Bars on window from the days the fort served as a prison?

Right after the Civil War, Fort Macon was used as a federal prison for about a decade. It was garrisoned during the Spanish-American War at the end of that century, but very early in the 20th century it was completely abandoned by the U.S. Army. In 1923, the U.S. Congress in Washington sold Fort Macon to the State of North Carolina for the symbolic sum of $1.00, with the understanding that the site would be used as a state park.

The vaulted chambers, or casemates, inside the fort
are all open one to the other.

Sunday afternoon, my sister and I, now both in our 60s, took a drive over to Fort Macon with my sister's 6-year-old granddaughter. The little one had never seen the fort before, as far as we know. She loved climbing and running around all over the fort, and she enjoyed some of the historical and natural history exhibits. We did too. Everything is free to visitors, and there is a nice bookstore/gift shop in a new building just outside the fort.

It was just one more visit to Fort Macon for two local old-timers, and a first visit for a new generation.


  1. Fort Macon is one of my favorite places in eastern NC. Thanks!


  2. I loved reading "Chesapeake bay" by Michener when I first came to this country. I wish he had written more about all the different regions of the US including yours. (You lucked out as we changed times while you are here and will be back in France when they change their time. Did you plan it that way?).

  3. Interesting. NC. and I haven't crossed paths yet. I'll try to remember this area to visit should the opportunity come up.

    Thanks for sharing all the history.

  4. Interesting. Not unlike the coastal forts around the UK (not surprisingly: I suppose there's only so many ways you can design such things in any one era) - and no doubt too well-built to remove even if anyone wanted to.


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