Maryland seeks historic status for Fort Carroll

Fort Carroll in 2009.

When she thinks of Fort Carroll, the abandoned 19th-century military installation in the Patapsco River, Beverly Eisenberg thinks of her grandfather — and of duckpin bowling balls.

She visited the six-sided artificial island as a little girl, just a few years after her grandfather bought the place in 1958 hoping to turn it into a destination with a slots casino, hotel and restaurants. He was making cast-iron facsimiles of the cannons that once armed the fort, and the cannons needed cannon balls — duckpin balls that she would paint black and set up at the guns to help Benjamin N. Eisenberg nurture a dream.


His casino plan ultimately ended foiled when a judge ruled that the abandoned fort is in Baltimore County, not Anne Arundel, where slots were legal at the time. Other development proposals, both public and private, fell through over the years, and the island has been overrun by thousands of birds. But members of the Eisenberg family still own Fort Carroll, a 3.45-acre island that lies southeast of the Francis Scott Key Memorial Bridge, and they still have hopes for it.

Beverly Eisenberg said the family supports an effort by the state-run Maryland Historical Trust to have the fort, which was built in the 1850s, placed on the National Register of Historic Places, creating financial incentives for restoration. Just days ago, the private organization Preservation Maryland announced that the stone structure –- a project managed at the start by future Confederate general Robert E. Lee -– was on its annual Endangered Maryland list.


"We're very excited about" the National Register application, said Eisenberg, a Baltimore architect. "We would love to see the fort restored. It's something we've tried over the years to make happen."

Beyond that, she said she is "not at liberty" to elaborate on any plans. It is unclear how much it would cost to restore the fort, which is assessed at $31,500, with a real estate tax of about $380 per year.

The fort has no colorful battle history to brag about. But preservationists argue for its significance as a fine example of cutting-edge civil engineering of the mid-19th century, as an artifact of a period of national defense buildup and for its association with Lee.

Patricia L. Bentz, executive director of the Preservation Alliance of Baltimore County, which pushed to have Fort Carroll included on the Endangered Maryland list, said the group has modest ambitions for the fort.

"Right now the main goal is to stabilize the fort so it does not continue to deteriorate," Bentz said. As it stands, she said, the fort is undergoing "demolition by neglect, I hate to say that."

The parade ground where Benjamin Eisenberg once stood — a 1961 photograph shows him next to one of his cannons, a small pile of what could be those shiny, painted duckpin balls in the background — has long since been overgrown with brush. Bentz's organization and others fear that tree roots growing into the spaces between the stones could destroy the arches that support the roof.

"You see the trees growing through the masonry," said Baltimore developer William Struever, who visited the island many times when his company had a lease and option to buy it more than 10 years ago. "The roofs will collapse, and that will be the end of Fort Carroll. …I think it's a very real threat."

Struever said Fort Carroll is built with "absolutely just the most beautiful masonry I've seen anywhere in the world. …It's unbelievable. It's a magical place."


He envisioned an inn and conference center, perhaps alongside an environmental center operated in cooperation with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Ultimately, he said, other company projects diverted attention from resolving the questions of access to the fort and how to work in harmony with birds that since the late 1980s have adopted the fort as a nesting ground.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources is about to begin its periodic bird census there, but in 2008 officials counted 10 varieties, including egrets, herons, ibises and cormorants, said David F. Brinker, a ecologist for the agency. Counting breeding pairs and the average number of chicks, that made for a bird population of 4,000 in the height of summer.

In winter, though, the birds head south, leaving empty nests behind. Brinker said nothing in state law would prevent clearing the brush and empty nests in the winter, but such a move might be blocked by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty, which has protected birds since 1918 and is enforced by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Scott Johnston, a branch chief in the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Division of Migratory Birds, said under the law, for the birds on Fort Carroll "it's OK to destroy a nest if there are no birds associated with that nest, no eggs, no young, and the birds are not building it." He said a different standard would apply to endangered or threatened species, and to bald and golden eagles.

Struever said that although the birds were a complication, "We left feeling if you had the right team of people, the right focus of time and energy, the bird issue was one that could be dealt with."


Struever is only the latest man whose visions of Fort Carroll went unfulfilled.

In 1922, according to an account in The Baltimore Sun, a former president of the city Park Board called for buying Fort Carroll and using it as a park. The sitting president, though, said it was too small and not easily accessible.

In 1919, Mayor William Broening floated the notion of putting up an electric "Baltimore Welcomes You" sign on the island, along with a statue to rival New York's Statue of Liberty. It would be a figure of "Lord Baltimore," presumably meaning George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore.

"We ought to have something of the character at the entrance of our harbor," Broening was quoted in a news account. "And what would be more appropriate than a statue of our own Lord Baltimore?"

The U.S. government, which built the fort, also did not realize its own grand aspirations.

Planned as part of what is called the "Third System" of national defense launched after the War of 1812, Fort Carroll was to take its place not quite five miles from Fort McHenry as a bulwark against attack. The fort was planned as a three-story stone structure with 225 cannons, according to the application for the National Register listing, prepared by Friends of Fort Carroll, although some historical sources mention four stories and 350 guns.


Lee, the future commander of the Army of Nothern Virginia, was a brevet colonel in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when he was assigned to supervise the construction in 1848. He lived on Madison Avenue on the west side of Baltimore for about three years as the work began.

As it turned out, construction involving such state-of-the-art equipment as underwater saws and a diving bell never went beyond the first story.

The fort was armed during wartime more than once. In the Civil War, Fort Carroll was manned with 30 guns. For the not quite four-month-long Spanish-American War, the fort was outfitted in 1898 with newly constructed gun placements and three batteries, and was "considered one of Baltimore's strongest means of defense," the National Register application says.

But the wars never came to Baltimore. The guns were never fired in anger.

Instead, the government removed the guns during World War I, then picked the place for scrap iron during World War II. Coast Guard members took pistol practice out there in the early 1940s, and foreign sailors were dropped off to wait on Fort Carroll while their ships were being fumigated in the harbor.

Soon enough, the parade of ideas inspired by Fort Carroll over the years would continue.


Benjamin Eisenberg, who started in real estate before he became a lawyer, bought it from the U.S. government for $10,000, and got his granddaughter busy painting duckpin balls shiny black.