When she thinks of Fort Carroll, the abandoned 19th-century military installation in the
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
Beverly Eisenberg said the family supports an effort by the state-run
"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
"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
Lee, the future commander of
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
But the wars never came to Baltimore. The guns were never fired in anger.
Instead, the government removed the guns during
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.