Finding Fort Freemont

Fort Freemont, still America’s first line of defense against the marauding Spanish Navy.

Three hours and some change south, some 176 miles, you’ll come across the ruins of an old fort and chapel on St. Helena Island. Both picturesque. Both historic. This excursion into ruins and history may require an overnight stay, but if you do you will be glad you did. Beaufort has fine restaurants and hotels and is itself a worthy destination. This day trip could easily turn into a two-day trip when you consider all this region harbors.

The drive from Beaufort down Highway 21 itself is picturesque, with splendid views of marsh. Avenues of live oaks give the drive a classic Lowcountry atmosphere. You’ll find Fort Fremont Park at the southwestern tip of St. Helena Island. When you arrive at the old fort, a Port Royal panorama awaits back of the fort. See the wide expanse of water European explorers sailed into.

The Fort Fremont Park site fronts 900 feet of Port Royal, an historic site itself. Frenchman Jean Ribault sailed in here in 1562 and founded the short-lived settlement of Charlesfort on Parris Island. Port Royal was the site of the Naval Battle of Port Royal during the Civil War.

Beaufort County owns the old fort and its grounds. It’s typically quiet with few visitors. Built because of the Spanish-American War in 1899 the fort’s purpose was to defend the region from the Spanish. The fort’s “Endicott Batteries” accommodated disappearing guns of 8-, 10-, 12-, and 16-inch diameters, and 10- and 12-inch mortars. Fort Fremont also bristled with 10-inch disappearing guns and a rapid-fire battery. Climbing over the old fort you can see the turrets and bolts where guns sat.

At its peak, the fort covered 70 acres and included a hospital, barracks, stables, guardhouses, commissary and other support buildings. Only two batteries and the hospital building remain.

The fort takes its name from Gen. Charles C. Fremont, a Savannah native. Gen. Fremont had played an enormous role in capturing California from Mexico years before. Fort Fremont was deactivated as a military installation in 1921. Now, if you listen to legends, only ghosts dwell here. The ‘Lands End Light’ is well known by locals. One tale recounts that the light is the lantern of a Confederate soldier patrolling Land’s End Road in 1861. A Yankee soldier, or soldiers, caught him off guard and cut off his head. All these years later he walks the road with his old iron lantern seeking his head.

On your way back be sure to stop and visit the Chapel of Ease. Destroyed by an 1886 forest fire, St. Helena’s Chapel of Ease, built in the mid 1700s, is a shell today. Tabby walls and old brick are all that remain. With Beaufort’s main parish church a bit too far, this chapel made it more convenient for planters and their families to worship.

If You Go …

• To get to Fort Fremont from Beaufort follow U.S. 21 east to Frogmore. Turn right at Martin Luther King Boulevard and drive 7.7 miles. The entrance to Fort Fremont Preserve will be on the right.

• To get to the St. Helena Parish Chapel of Ease Ruins take S.C. Secondary Road 45 in St. Helena.

• No admission for either.

• Fort Fremont: www.fortfremont.org/index.html

• Chapel of Ease: www.nationalregister.sc.gov/beaufort/S10817707045/

Learn more about Tom Poland, a Southern writer, and his work at twww.tompoland.net. Email day-trip ideas to him at [email protected]