Fort Pickens is located within the Gulf Islands National Seashore in Pensacola Bay, Florida. The historic pentagonal fort is located on the western point of Santa Rosa Island, a 40-mile long barrier island just east of the Alabama border. The stone fort is comprised of over 21 million bricks, most of which were laid in place by slave labor. The sally port, the fort’s main entrance, is secured with heavy wooden doors.
Three small officer’s quarters served as a hospital in 1861, and later housed prisoners of war, including the Apache leader, Geronimo. Cisterns located on the roof collected and stored rainwater for drinking, a system which was necessary should the fort ever come under attack. Tower bastions point across the channel to protect the entrance to the inner harbor. When the fort was first built, the island extended 500 feet from these bastions, and is now almost 1 mile away due to dredging for large ships and other natural forces, which have since changed the shoreline. Casemates, or arched rooms, provided shelter for artillery and strong architectural support for the cannons located above. Visitors can also see the mine battery room, mine chambers, and powder magazine. A small museum located at the fort recently reopened after having been severely damaged by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. The museum offers 3D maps, interactive displays, and a short video on the history of the fort.
History: The United States fortified all its major ports after the War of 1812. Fort Pickens, built in 1829 and completed in 1834, is the largest among four that were built to defend Pensacola Bay and the navy yard. The fort takes the name of Major General Andrew Pickens, who fought for the Union with distinction in several Revolutionary War battles. Fort Pickens was one of the only forts in the South to have never been occupied by Confederate soldiers during the US Civil War, thanks to the heroic efforts of Lieutenant Adam Slemmer and the US Navy ship the Wyandotte, who successfully defended the fort the day after Florida announced its succession from the Union, thus preventing the Confederate forces from controlling Pensacola Bay and its associated naval yard. The fort was one of only three in the South to have remained under Union control throughout the war. Following the Civil War, the fort underwent renovations and updates to its artillery. New weapons technology that included ironclad warships and rifled cannons made brick and stone forts obsolete. From the 1890s through the 1940s, ten concrete gun batteries were installed. The army abandoned forts after World War II when, once more, new weapons such as atomic bombs and guided missiles made them unnecessary. 1947 was the last year in which Fort Pickens was in use. In 1971, the fort became property of the Florida State Park, later the Gulf Islands National Seashore. In 1976, after extensive repairs by the National Parks Service, the fort was reopened to the public.
Ongoing Programs and Education: Park rangers offer tours of the fort and surrounding areas, which vary by season. Visitors should call for a schedule of tour times and locations; most begin at the Fort Pickens bookstore.
Past and Future Exhibits: Summer programs for 2017 included School of the Soldier, a history tour on the life and times of soldiers during the Civil War. The tour included firing demonstrations. Life on a Barrier Island is a nature walk beginning at the fort that teaches visitors about the plants and animals unique to the island. Creature Feature offers a more in-depth look at particular animals. Bird Walks meet early on Monday mornings. Fort Pickens: Guardians of the Gulf is a walking program offering stories related to the history of the fort. Dusk on the Gulf is an early evening story time session led by park rangers at sunset. Stargazing at Fort Pickens is a summer evening program in which volunteers from the Escambia Amateur Astronomer’s Association (EAAA) bring telescopes for visitors to use during a guided stargazing session.
What’s Nearby: Additional concrete gun batteries located to the east and west of the fort were constructed in the early 20th century. The ruins of these later facilities may also be seen on Santa Rosa Island. Fort McRee is located on Perdido Key across from Fort Pickens. Fort Barrancas is located across the Pensacola Bay at the Naval Air Station Pensacola.
1801 Gulf Breeze Parkway, Gulf Breeze, FL 32563, Phone: 860-934-2600
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