Nearly two centuries ago, American officials were worried about Louisiana’s coastline. But their concern wasn’t erosion of the marshes or walls of water driven by a storm devastating the region. It was foreign navies.
Fresh off of stinging naval defeats to the British in the War of 1812, President James Monroe and the Congress of the fledgling United States settled on coastal defense as a priority.
To address that concern, they commissioned a series of forts to be built along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. These forts, known as the Third System of coastal defenses, included Fort Monroe in Virginia, Fort Sumter in South Carolina, Fort Pickens in Pensacola Bay and Fort Pike in Louisiana, as well as more than three dozen others.
Today, those forts are historical relics, reminders of the way wars were fought before aircraft, smart bombs and ballistic missiles.
Fort Pike is no exception. The isolated spot along U.S. 90 at the eastern extremity of Orleans Parish has for years been host to children scampering over its earthen battlements and sitting astride the old cannons, and history buffs wandering slowly through the fort, eyes peering back through time.
But as of Friday, even that has ceased as Fort Pike succumbs to a modern foe: state budget woes. A $1.5 million midyear budget cut for the Office of State Parks means that Fort Pike’s last visitors toured the site Friday, officials said.
The closure is indefinite, said Jacques Berry, a spokesman for Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, who oversees the state park system.
“Everyone’s taking cuts,” Berry said.
The future outlook is not bright either: Further cuts are anticipated for next year, Berry said.
The closure means that people will no longer be able to stand atop Fort Pike’s walls, gazing toward the Gulf of Mexico or Lake Pontchartrain, or wander through the low galleries that line the outer wall or the barracks in the center of the fort.
One of the first things one learned upon visiting the fort was that it never did what it was created to do: No cannon was ever fired from its walls in battle. But its history is still rich, illuminating some of the most tumultuous moments in the state’s and nation’s past.
Completed in 1826 after seven years of construction, Fort Pike served as a way station and training depot during several 19th-century conflicts until it was finally abandoned in 1890.
The fort’s construction and masonry, much of which remains intact, is an important window into the United States in the pre-Civil War era, said Lawrence Powell, a professor emeritus at Tulane University who specializes in U.S. and Louisiana history.
“This was the foundation of Civil War forts,” he said.
Conditions for those garrisoned at the fort were likely spartan at best and “hellish” at worst, Powell said.
During its nearly seven decades of service, the fort played a role in various noteworthy events, according to information provided on the state Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism’s website.
In the 1830s, when the United States decided to relocate thousands of Seminole Indians from the East to Oklahoma, Fort Pike served as a way station along the deportation route, at one time housing some 250 Seminoles and their slaves guarded by six dozen United States troops.
A decade later, the fort was again a way station but this time for troops headed to Texas and points south to fight during the Mexican War.
And, of course, Fort Pike was occupied during the U.S. Civil War. First, it was held by members of the Louisiana militia, but when the Union Army captured New Orleans in 1862, the Confederates evacuated the fort, and the Union troops took it and used it as a base for raids along the Gulf Coast and around Lake Pontchartrain.
The Army also used the fort as a training ground for former slaves who were later to join the United States Colored Troops, who fought in the siege of Port Hudson along the Mississippi River north of Baton Rouge in 1863.
Through it all, though, Fort Pike never came under attack. The fort was armed with cannons large enough to fire 32- and 24-pound shots — but none were ever fired except during training.
After the Civil War, the fort was staffed thinly and eventually abandoned in 1890. It was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.
Despite being at least a footnote to so much history, Fort Pike was one of the less-visited state historic sites, Berry said.
Among the cuts at Fort Pike were two employees, one of whom began his job Jan. 20 and was notified Jan. 23 that he was being laid off a week later.
“I was really excited about starting,” said Ryan Jackson, the site’s manager. “I was just getting settled in; then the word came down.”
Jackson is a graduate of Tulane’s historic preservation graduate program and said he was excited about getting to study Fort Pike.
“It’s one of the oldest American structures in the state,” he said.
He said the site is attractive for other reasons, too. “It has such a natural environmental angle to it. If people appreciate wildlife, waterways, water fowl, they can get that here, too,” Jackson said.
Amy Savoy, the fort’s interpretive ranger, also was laid off as of Friday. “It’s a shame,” she said.
Savoy, who had been at the fort nine months, greeted guests and gave tours. “There’s some amazing wildlife out here,” she said.
Savoy said the site sometimes got between 50 and 100 visitors in a day, but on other days, only a couple of people dropped by, a fact she attributed to its isolation.
Berry couldn’t say what the fort’s future holds and what care it will receive, a fact that worries Powell, the Tulane historian.
“My concern is that this closure flips into neglect and disuse,” he said. “These forts are pretty sturdy things, but they do require some upkeep.”
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.