They are considered part of New Orleans Fire Department. The fort is right next to the firehouse.
Historic Fort Pike Battles Back
By Kia Hall Hayes
ST. TAMMANY BUREAU - Standing in tall marsh grass and looking out at Fort Pike and the adjacent Rigolets, Joseph Yarbrough shuddered to think what would happen if the structure continues its steady decline, which was accelerated by Hurricane Katrina.
It would be like losing the French Quarter, offers Yarbrough, president of the Fort Pike Foundation.
"If these structures were to fall, there would be no replacing it," he said. "We need to preserve it."
State officials are doing just that, giving the historic site a much-needed facelift and developing plans for more significant renovations. Fort Pike is set to open next month for the first time since the storm.
The 19th century fortification at New Orleans' easternmost shore has been closed since the 14-foot-high structure was completely submerged more than two years ago. The waters left waist-high marsh grass, wild animals and significant structural damage to the 190-year-old site, which had already fallen into disrepair due to decades of neglect and erosion.
Fort on endangered list
Fork Pike -- along with Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip, both in Plaquemines Parish -- was listed as among the 10 most endangered battlefields in the United States last year. The list was complied by the Civil War Preservation Trust, a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C.
Officials say a flurry of activity will take place in the coming weeks to get Fort Pike ready to open, and landscaping crews will come in and clear the marsh grass and mud and other remaining storm debris.
"This was just like the Gulf of Mexico," Yarbrough said of the once-flooded site along U.S. 90.
Support buildings surrounding the fort, which were washed away in the storm, have been replaced, and the walkway, bridge, picnic pavilion and restrooms have been rebuilt. The nearby boat launch, which sustained pre- and post-storm damage and is also owned by the state, reopened several months ago.
"Everybody's anxious to see it open and get people back to the area and try to revitalize the tourist trade," said Yarbrough, who hopes Fort Pike will eventually become one of the most popular tourist attractions in the New Orleans area.
Damage is visible
Signs of the more significant damage are still visible on the fort, which was held by Confederate soldiers until it was taken over by Union forces around 1862. Cracks in the citadel walls that were several feet wide before the storm have expanded enough to walk through. Pieces of old houses and boats, remnants of storm debris that covered the entire fort after the storm, still litter portions of the grounds.
The most heavily damaged areas will remain closed to the public, but visitors will still be able to walk on the grass-covered upper level and around several of the casemates where guns were housed, said Stuart Johnson with the state Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism.
"You'll still be able to get that experience to look out like a soldier in the fort," he said.
To correct decades of neglect, the state has hired John Miller & Associates to conduct a full evaluation of the fort and develop a five-year construction plan. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has given a verbal commitment to cover the projected $18 million cost of the project, which includes correcting structural damage and creating barriers to prevent further erosion, Johnson said.
Two other forts fare poorly
Other local forts damaged by Katrina aren't faring so well. Fort Jackson, along the Mississippi River south of Buras and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, held storm surge for weeks after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita because it is surrounded by levees that trapped the water, which had to be pumped out.
Fort Jackson, which was built in the 1820s and is owned by Plaquemines Parish, has remained closed since Katrina. The fort had cracks before the storms, but trees growing atop its bastion walls and over its casemates are the source of much of the structural damage, officials have said.
Stanley Mathes, the parish's tourism director, said there has been talk among parish officials about Fort Jackson becoming part of a national park, but "that is strictly in the talk stage," he said.
Mathes said he would like to see the park reopened so the parish's annual Orange Festival could return to the site.
"It's something that we'd like to get back because it was a great recreational area," he said.
Fort St. Philip, located just upstream from Fort Jackson on the east bank, was built in 1795 by the Spanish. Its cannons prevented the British from reaching New Orleans in 1815 in the Battle of New Orleans and fired on Union ships in 1862, but owner Frank Ashby Jr., a New Orleans oil broker, has no plans to restore it.
The 60-acre fort had fallen into disrepair years ago, but, thanks to Katrina, "whatever was left standing is probably not standing anymore," Ashby said.
Plaquemines Parish had expressed interest in acquiring the fort, which is accessible only by boat, but Ashby says he won't part with the land where he scattered his father's ashes decades ago.
"I have no plans to restore it and I never did have any plans to restore it," he said.
'It's just too much to lose'
Walking around Fort Pike while keeping an eye out for snakes, Yarbrough was a veritable encyclopedia of trivia.
"The history here is just phenomenal," he said.
Completed in 1827 on top of a cypress log foundation called "grillage," the structure was home to 400 Confederate troops during the Civil War. Pinkney Benton Stewart Pinchback served here as a second lieutenant before becoming the first African-American governor of Louisiana, Yarbrough said.
During the Civil War, Confederate soldiers held the fort until Union forces took New Orleans in 1862 and the structure was evacuated. Union soldiers reoccupied the building and used it as a training center for former slaves, who were taught to use heavy artillery before joining the U.S. Colored Troops.
The fort was officially abandoned in 1890 and in 1972 was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
"It's just too much to lose," Yarbrough said.
He plans to coordinate tours with local schools, make the site a bus tour destination and hold arts and crafts fairs on the property. An Open Air Art Festival, the last in May 2005, was held at the fort for four years before Katrina. Yarbrough wants Fort Pike to be even more popular than it was before the storm, when it attracted about an average of 14,000 visitors annually.
"It has the potential if we can get the support from the public and the funds to do it," he said.