Baltimore Sun

No plans have taken wing at old fortress

In 1958, a speculator thought long-abandoned Fort Carroll, seven miles south of Baltimore's Inner Harbor, would make an impressive gambling den. How many casinos, after all, have 10-foot-thick granite walls and gunports?

But 46 years after Benjamin N. Eisenberg, a local lawyer, bought the bastion, hoping to turn it into a slots venue, it remains a ghost fort that's being overrun by trees, vines and weeds. Hundreds of sea gulls, egrets and herons have taken possession of the pre-Civil War fortress. And they have no intention of giving it up.

"I still think it's possible to work out cohabitation with the birds," developer C. William Struever said recently, skippering a boat and watching birds swoop around the 3.5-acre artificial island just south of the Key Bridge.

Eighteen months ago, Struever threw in the towel. He had hoped to turn the fort into a conference center but let his option lapse. The reason: The birds have so much protection under Maryland's Chesapeake critical areas environmental laws that redevelopment would be difficult if not impossible.

Fort Carroll also piqued the interest of a Mississippi casino company, which looked at it as a possible gambling site. But, again, no dice.

"It's a unique and fairly historic piece of property," said George Williams of Isle of Capri Casinos in Biloxi, Miss. "But I saw a lot of problems - access problems, utility problems, construction problems, not to mention that Maryland law at the present time does not allow slots or casino gambling."

Even if slots were legalized, there is little likelihood that Fort Carroll would be among the authorized sites.

This seems to leave Fort Carroll's future mostly under the wings of the birds. Unless a new roof is put on the fort soon, Struever said, invading trees will destroy the "glorious masonry arches" of its ammunition chambers and gun corridors and turn the landmark into ruins.

Fort Carroll, named after Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, has been in limbo since construction began in 1848.

It was built on piles driven into underwater mud flats not far from Sollers Point in Dundalk. One of the construction supervisors was Brevet Col. Robert E. Lee, then an Army engineer but soon to be a Confederate hero.

Fort Carroll was designed to strengthen Baltimore's harbor defenses in conjunction with nearby Fort Armistead, Fort McHenry and Fort Howard. But rapid advances in military technology quickly rendered the plan obsolete, and Fort Carroll was never finished. Although it remained in sporadic military use until World War II, its guns never fired in battle.

In 1958, Fort Carroll, long decommissioned, finally appeared headed for productive use when Eisenberg bought it for $10,000. His idea was to turn it into a slots venue, taking advantage of legislation that allowed slot machines in four then-rural counties, including Anne Arundel. But the plan collapsed after courts ruled that the fort was situated in Baltimore County, which did not allow slot machines, and not in Anne Arundel. Soon, slot machines were banned throughout the state.

Eisenberg then tried another tack. Pouring money into Fort Carroll, he spruced it up, cast fake guns out of cement and tried to promote the fortress as a destination for tourist boats. But it never caught on.

Undeterred, Eisenberg next proposed that Fort Carroll be used in the design of the Key Bridge, part of the Beltway circling Baltimore. Nothing came of that either, nor of a 20-story motel he proposed for the site. He died in 1974.

According to land records, the island is now owned by Alan G. and Irvin D. Eisenberg. It is assessed for $31,500. They continue to dream of big things happening to Fort Carroll.

While they declined to discuss specific plans, they still hope to develop the site someday, perhaps even with a major resort company.

That would be just one of a grab bag of ideas proposed for the fort over the past century.

In 1909, Mayor J. Barry Mahool suggested that Baltimore should match New York's Statue of Liberty by erecting a huge likeness of Cecil Calvert, the founder of Maryland, on the bay side of the island. No takers.

Fourteen years later, another mayor, William F. Broening, broadened the idea. He proposed adding a large electric sign reading, "Welcome to Baltimore," to greet arriving ships.

Decades later, a local history buff, Jack Kelbaugh, suggested that the fort be turned into a prison. He quoted Union Gen. Lew Wallace, who would later write Ben Hur, as proposing during the Civil War that Fort Carroll would be ideal as "a prison for the feminine blockade runners and spies, who are many, offending against law and order."

Joseph D. Johnson, a recent visitor from California, liked the prison idea as he viewed Fort Carroll from a dock.

"It reminds me of the movie The Birdman of Alcatraz," he said.

Now, though, Fort Carroll's monuments consist of a rickety smokestack that was once part of its heating system and remnants of a clapboard lighthouse that might not survive the next big storm.

And instead of the welcome sign Broening proposed, a painted message at the entrance to the fort warns: "Private. Keep off. Guard dog."

There is no guard dog. But hundreds of birds guard the fortress against intruders, who are few because there is no easy way to get inside from the landing, which lacks a bridge.

"It's like a fort - impregnable," Struever said.