For two decades, four forts stood guard over the Patapsco River and the entrance to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. We recently visited three of the four of these forts: Forts Armistead, Howard and Smallwood. The forth, Fort Carroll, is on an artificial island in the middle of the Patuxent River. Enemy ships would have to sail perilously past the four forts to reach Baltimore’s rich inner harbor.
Despite its location in the eponymously named Fort Armistead Park, visiting this fort feels daring — urban exploration at its most dangerous. It’s not of course — it’s in a park, silly. But most visit the park to go fishing in the Patapsco River, in the shadow of Key Bridge. The coastal fortifications — now ruins — are overgrown and crumbling and covered in spray paint. It is eerie, even during the day, to explore the tunnels and hidden rooms.
If you explore the ruins, watch where you step — there is broken glass, discarded spray paint bottles and yes, apparently used condoms everywhere. Yuk. Fort Armistead apparently has a secret life, and not of a ghostly variety. I wouldn’t recommend going there alone after dark.
But during the day, there’s history, although none of it marked or explained. You can wander around the ruins of this old fort and admire the exuberant graffiti. I wouldn’t bring dogs or young kids there (the broken glass, condoms as well as some of the graffiti) but it’s an interesting place to explore and photograph.
Built from 1897 to 1901 as part of a late-1800s effort to ensure the U.S. coast was adequately defended, Fort Armistead, named for the commander of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, was built in Hawkins Point. Visible from the four batteries is Fort Carroll, entirely surrounded by the river. Armistead also included a mine casemate and command station to control a naval minefield in the harbor.
After the United States entered World War I in April 1917, many guns were removed from coast defenses for potential service on the Western Front, including from Fort Armistead. Ironically, most of these weapons were never sent overseas, nor were they returned to the forts. The fort again was used during WWII by the U.S. Navy as ammunition storage, but afterward given to the City of Baltimore to be used as a park.
Nearby — just over Key Bridge in fact, is Fort Howard. As you go over Key Bridge, be sure to look to the right and you’ll get a bird’s eye view of Fort Carroll — probably the best way to see the seafort, unless you have a boat.
Built on an artificial island, the hexagonal fort is just 3.4 acres and dates back to before the Civil War — in fact, Robert E Lee supervised its construction in 1848 – 1852. The fort, although not yet fully completed, was armed and occupied during the Civil War and then again during the Spanish-American War in 1898. Since its abandonment after WWI, a number of uses for the land has been suggested: a prison, a welcome to Baltimore sign, a casino, but none have made it beyond the suggestion-phase. The only way to get to Fort Carroll is by boat.
If you’re really interested in understanding coastal fort construction of the late 1800s, then Fort Howard should be your first destination. Built just after Fort Armistead on North Point Peninsula, at the mouth of the Patapsco River to the Chesapeake Bay, the fort is now a small park and offers markers and signs explaining the various features and uses of the fort. There is less graffiti and other detrius, and the park offers picnic tables and playgrounds, making it a whole lot more family friendly.
You can safely walk by and through the ruins of the fort, encountering periodic signs explaining what you’re seeing. It was fun exploring the empty ruins. For the most part, the ruins are graffiti free, although I did notice that in a couple of the rooms, graffiti artists had struck.
Fort Howard was operated by four companies of Coast Artillery Corps – the 21st, 40th, 103rd and 140th, considered to be the best coast artillerymen in the world. Unlike the other forts, Fort Howard became a larger military installation, with officers cottages and barracks and other support buildings for those stationed there.
By 1940, though, Fort Howard had lost its value as a coastal defense and the U.S. Veterans’ Administration (now the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) took over the installation, establishing the Fort Howard Veterans Hospital on the site. During WWII the fenced installation was used as a holding center for German prisoners of war and Japanese and German “enemy aliens” (non-citizen residents arrested as potential enemies but, in most cases, denied due process); Veterans Affairs still controls the now-abandoned property, except for the old coastal artillery fortifications. During the Vietnam War, the grounds served as training grounds, but in 1975, the old coastal artillery fortifications were turned over to Baltimore to serve as an historical park.
We had to go to the last of the four forts protecting Baltimore — Fort Smallwood, now an Anne Arundel County park that has a boat ramp, a fishing pier, picnic tables, walking paths, children’s playgrounds, and beach area. Unfortunately, the park road that would have allowed us access to the remains of Fort Smallwood is under construction and closed to the public. We promised to come back to see it after construction was completed, sometime later this spring.
When Fort Howard was completed, a journalist described the four forts as a “bulldog guarding the gates of Baltimore.” And indeed, it was true — the overlapping artillery ranges ensured the safety of the city and its port.
Know before you go: Kids and dogs yes at Fort Howard Park and Fort Smallwood Park. Kids and dogs no at Fort Armistead Park, unless you’re just sticking to the fishing pier. If you want to make a tour of all three forts, start with Fort Smallwood, then head to Fort Armistead and then to Fort Howard.
Hours: Check the parks’ websites, below; Fort Armistead Park, daylight.
Getting there: Fort Smallwood Park is located at 9500 Fort Smallwood Rd, Pasadena, MD; Fort Armistead Park is located at Fort Armistead Rd, Baltimore, MD; Fort Howard Park is located at
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