By Dr. Robert Norman, Clinical Professor, Dermatology, Nova Southeastern University
On one of my first excursions using my newly purchased RV, I headed northeast towards Amelia Island north of Jacksonville. Having made a few stops on route, I arrived at my camping spot a bit after sunset and backed in. I knew that the back of my vehicle was a couple yards from what appeared to be a sandy rise leading up a hill. I set up the electric and water and prepared for the night ahead. After reading and writing and very little arithmetic, I settled down and studied the back of my eyelids until the dawn.
When I awoke, I stepped down my side steps and went over to the sandy area and walked up along the edge of the dunes, being careful not to disturb anything. The sea oats were swaying in the warm breeze of morning and a whitetail deer was circling around a dune.
The morning was magical, the dunes around carved in elegant shapes by the wind and time, and ahead I could see the waves rolling in. I went back to get my camera, and stayed out for over an hour, taking pictures and videos.
By mid-morning I was headed to the fort, a place I had heard about for many years but not yet visited. I soaked in the history of the place as I toured around the museum and grounds. I hiked up to the top level of the fort and looked out over to Cumberland Island, where wild horses can sometimes be seen on the beach.
For almost 300 years, the entrance to the Cumberland Sound and the St Mary’s River has been of vital importance to the people of Florida Although the first fortifications began here in 1736, it was more than a century later that the Fort Clinch we see today began to take shape.
After the widespread destruction of the War of 1812, the desire grew to protect the country from foreign invaders in times of conflict. The building of Fort Clinch with masonry and stone began in 1847 and was a prime example of the “Third System Fortifications” consisting of a series of forts built along the coastline of the United States. The fort was mostly constructed by civilians and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to protect the coast of southern Georgia. The outbreak of hostilities at the start of the Civil War found the fort only about two-thirds completed and with no cannons yet mounted on the walls. By default the fort came under Confederate control and fortifications and batteries were established on Amelia Island and the surrounding area.
The Union began to wrestle control of coastal and southern Georgia and the Confederate leader General Robert E. Lee gave the order to evacuate the fort. Union troops arrived in early March of 1862 and work on the fort continued with the efforts of Company E of the New York Volunteer Engineers. Still not completed by the end of the war, by 1869 it was left empty and was maintained by the U.S. Army on caretaker status until 1898.
When the sinking of the USS Maine sparked the Spanish-American War, Fort Clinch once again was resurrected as a barracks and ammunition depot. Fortifications were made that included the mounting of guns and laying of a minefield outside the walls. Fort Clinch was abandoned again less than a year later hostilities ceased.
The fort laid empty for a number of years, with Atlantic storms beating and crumbling its walls, and was eventually sold by the Army to private entities in 1926. Finally, certain historians and others promoted the idea to save the fort and it became one of Florida’s first state parks in 1935.
In 1936, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) began restoring the buildings at the fort in 1936 with impetus from the New Deal proclamation of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The action put thousands of Americans back to work refurbishing the nation’s parks and resources amidst the stagnation of the Great Depression. I have been to many of the CCC restored parks and marvel at the workmanship and united efforts of those who participated. The CCC Company 1420 that were stationed at Fort Clinch constructed the museum, campground and park roads and also removed massive amounts of sand and debris from the fort itself. A monument to these dedicated servants who restored the park stands on the grounds today.
During World War II, Fort Clinch served again, its mission as a joint operations center for surveillance and communications against our enemies. The park was given back to the state to open to the public at the end of the war. Today you can tour bastions, guard rooms, a prison, barracks, hospital, kitchens and a blacksmith’s shop, all furnished as they would have been during the Civil War and Union occupation.
After exploring the fort, I rode my bike along one of the wonderful scenic trails and then headed back to my RV. I went back out to explore the beach and the dunes before heading in for the night. The next day I did a good long kayak trip, and along the way was mesmerized by a manatee feeding on the edge of an estuary off the main river. The park offers miles of shoreline along the Atlantic, the St. Mary’s Inlet and the Amelia River and abundant opportunities for swimming, surfing, boating, shelling, fishing and viewing wildlife. Here you can find a home to several migrating and transient species including the federally threatened red knot (Calidris canutus) and the Caspian, gull-billed, and sandwich terns.
Many protected imperiled species are found and protected within and along the park, including the shell-mound prickly pear (Opuntia stricta), black skimmer (Rynchops niger), Wilson’s plover (Charadrius wilsonia) and the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis), who use the waters off the coast of north Florida and southern Georgia as a breeding ground and nursery for their calves. In addition you may see green sea, loggerhead and leatherback turtles nesting on the shores.
I found one of the great practicalities of the RV was that when I finished paddling I could mount my kayak on the back, turn on the generator and water pump, and take a shower before heading south to Jacksonville to visit one of my friends and his family on my way back home!
Get out and enjoy the Great Florida Outdoors!
Fort Clinch State Park
2601 Atlantic Ave.
Fernandina Beach FL 32034
Dr. Norman is an advanced master naturalist graduate of the FMNP program from UF and a board-certified dermatologist based in Tampa and Riverview. He can be reached at 813-880-7546.