Virginians reading the Bay Journal’s recent article, Bird’s return to Hampton Road island defies expectations, celebrating recent efforts to adapt Fort Wool into habitat for nesting seabirds could be forgiven for asking, “Wait a minute, isn’t Fort Wool a historic site I used to be able to visit?”
The reader would be right: Fort Wool was built after the War of 1812 as an island of granite and a companion to Fort Monroe, allowing the two forts’ guns to operate together to control access to Hampton Roads.
It also served as a summer residence for two presidents, Andrew Jackson and John Tyler, as well as an initial sanctuary for enslaved Americans fleeing the Confederacy for the protection of the Union Army.
Guns from the fort fired at the ironclad CSS Virginia, in the Battle of Hampton Roads in March 1862. Abraham Lincoln observed the first Union attempt to invade Norfolk from the fort’s ramparts in May 1862. The fort is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and until recently was a stop for thousands of tourists a year, who arrive on Miss Hampton II, a tour boat originating in Downtown Hampton.
Virginians traveling over the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel can see Fort Wool, lying to the east, just offshore of the man-made South Island, but they may not realize the extent of the fort’s surviving historic resources. Construction started in 1819 and, during the next 125 years, Fort Wool evolved as military technology advanced, resulting in a rare fort that contains military architecture spanning the entire era of the United States’ seacoast defenses. Notable are remaining granite casemates dating to 1826, though most of the remaining fortifications date from the early 20th century, including the World War II Battery 229 (two, 6-inch shielded guns) and its iconic steel tower.
While fully recognizing the need for providing nesting sites for migratory seabirds and completing the bridge-tunnel expansion, these solutions need not and should not come at the expense of the permanent loss of a historic treasure.
Virginia should promptly plan a new site for the birds, as well as secure the needed funding to prepare that site and restore Fort Wool to the condition it was in before it was converted to a nesting habitat.
This means removing the huge weight of sand threatening the island’s stability (a major issue for the U.S. Army engineers who built Fort Wool), building a permanent dock for public access, stabilizing the battery commander’s tower and reinforcing the granite casemates (both key preservation efforts, now on hold).
These actions would allow safe visitation of the fort and ensure its survival so that future generations may learn about its role in U.S. history.
The site, in the middle of Hampton Roads, near the site of the 1862 USS Monitor-CSS Virginia battle, offers dramatic views of the Chesapeake Bay and Fort Monroe. The tourism appeal of Fort Wool is significant and can be built upon.
In recent years, thousands of visitors have disembarked from the Miss Hampton II to walk the grounds under the supervision of safety-conscious tour guides. Restoring public tours to Fort Wool can take place during the eight months each year when migratory nesting is not occurring as soon as the state Department of Conservation and Recreation stabilizes the historic structures and repairs the dock after decades of deferred maintenance.
Both the nesting birds and historic Fort Wool need to be safeguarded. We cannot trade one important resource for another. We are confident Virginia can locate an alternative seasonal nesting habitat and urge that it be done promptly.
It is vital that the citizens of Virginia let their political leaders know that preserving Fort Wool and restoring their access is important to them. n
Terry McGovern is the mid-Atlantic regional representative for the nonprofit Coast Defense Study Group (www.cdsg.org), which focuses on the history, architecture, technology and military use of coastal defenses and promotes their preservation and interpretation. He is also a founding member of the Coalition for Historic Fort Wool.
The views expressed by opinion columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.