THE MODERN ERA of COASTAL DEFENSE
Concrete, Steel & Breech-Loading Rifles
In 1885, President Garfield, through his Secretary of War, William Crowninshield Endicott, established a Board of Fortifications to review the status of all coastal defense fortifications. The Board reported that the improved weapons technology of high velocity breech-loaded cannons rendered the existing coastal defense systems obsolete. The Endicott Board recommendations led to a large scale modernization program for harbor and coastal defense in the United States.
When the war with Spain loomed in 1898, construction of coastal batteries was authorized by Congress under the $50 million Harbor Fortification Defense Act. The historic significance of Fort Fremont is that it is representative of the new coastal defenses built during this period with its upgraded design, and new weapons systems.
U.S. Naval Station Port Royal
Port Royal Sound is one of the largest natural deepwater harbors on the Atlantic Coast. During the Civil War, after contributing to the sack of Beaufort, the Union Army's South Atlantic Blockading Squadron established a base here for fleet repairs and a coaling station.
In 1891-1895 a dry dock was built at the Naval Station; the only one south of Norfolk, Virginia. It served as a strategic support base for the emerging Atlantic Fleet. Twenty-two naval ships visited the Station including the Battleships USS Maine, USS Massachusetts, USS Texas, and USS Indiana. The USS Maine made its last stop for provisions in Port Royal before leaving for its last voyage to Havana, Cuba, and the start of the Spanish American War.
Fort Fremont was built in 1899 by the Army Corps of Engineers using local labor on condemned private property on Saint Helena Island across the Beaufort River from the Naval Station. It was designed to play a vital role in the protection of the strategic dry dock and coaling station which remained critical to the Atlantic Fleet during the Spanish American War period.
The Fremont Batteries
Fort Fremont was one of six fortifications designed to protect the southeastern coast during the Spanish American War. The fort site eventually consisted of 170 acres with numerous outbuildings, including an administration building, guard house, barracks, hospital, stable, mess hall, bakery, commissary, post exchange, lavatory, and water tower. It was manned by a force of up to 110 personnel.
The main weapon systems consisted of Battery Jesup, which included three 10-inch breech-loaded disappearing cannons, and Battery Fornance which had two 4.7-inch rapid fire guns. These five gun emplacements, built behind bastions of earth, logs and concrete became some of the highest ground on the coastal islands.
Coastal defense during the Fort Fremont era was the responsibility of the artillery branch of the United Stated Army, and in 1901, the fort was manned by the E/2nd Artillery. In 1907, Fort Fremont was turned over to the 16th Company of the newly created Coast Artillery Corps which had its own uniforms, insignia, and traditions.
The Land's End Light
In June 1910, violence erupted between artillerymen at the fort and African-American civilians involving the sale of moonshine by the locals. Following several fights, six soldiers were wounded and one killed. Isaiah Potter, arrested for the fatal shooting, claimed that the trouble began with what the Beaufort Gazette called "intimacy between his wife and a private soldier" who was identified as Pvt. Frank J. Quigley. A local legend identifies Quigley as the ghostly Land's End Light.
Deactivation and Privitization
As early as 1906, the War Department gave serious consideration to the closing of Fort Fremont, due to budgetary constraints. In 1908, the general public could tour the fort and its weapon emplacements. In 1911, only a small detachment of soldiers of the 116th Company Coastal Artillery from Fort Screven, GA, remained at the post following transfer the 127th Company to Fort Sam Houston (Galveston, TX). The guns at Fort Fremont stayed on the fort until World War I.
Fort Fremont was officially deactivated in 1921.
Several private individuals aquired the property on Saint Helena Island over the years with various plans which by 1946 resulted in platting the property into beach lots. In 1951, Mr. and Mrs. G. B. Schurmeir renovated the hospital structure into a hunting and fishing lodge. In 1972, the concrete gun emplacements were the property of Mr. and Mrs. G. G. Dowling. In 1989, the hospital building (a private residence) was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The land was overgrown and the ruins of the fort seemed to have become an attractive nusiance.
THE FUTURE of FORT FREMONT
The Trust for Public Land and the Beaufort County Council paid $5.4 million to two landowners in October 2004 in order to transform the remnants of Fort Fremont into a beachfront park. In 2010, the batteries and surrounding property joined the hospital in the National Register of Historic Places. Minor improvements, cleanup, and fencing have been installed, and Beaufort County has allocated funds to improve the preserve. Final design plans for the park are under discussion by the County and the Friends.