Location: St. Augustine, Florida
Webpage: National Park
General Description: When Governor James Oglethorpe attempted to capture St. Augustine from the Spanish in 1740 by blockading and firing upon the Castillo de San Marcos, the Spanish realized they needed to protect the “backdoor”. Over 39 days, Oglethorpe was able to lay siege on St. Augustine because he could bring his ship up from the south through the Matanzas Inlet into the Mantazas River bypassing the defenses of the Castillo protecting the northern entrance to the river. Therefore, after Ogelthorpe withdrew without capturing the fort in 1740, they began the construction of a small fort to the south on Rattlesnake Island in a perfect position to protect the southern entrance. Completed in record time in 1742 it was ready to stop a further attempt by Gov Oglethorpe to blockade the town. Like the Castillo, Fort Matanzas is constructed using coquina, a local limestone rock cut from the ground made up of compressed sea shells. The coquina would then be covered by a limestone plaster and white-washed to provide a brilliant white surface that could absorb cannon shot without shattering. Most times the fort would be manned by 6 soldiers and an officer on a monthly rotation from the Costillo. Therefore the rooms of the fort consisted a single common room for the soldiers and officer quarters/supply room directly above. Access to the roof to the observation platform was through a small hole in the roof of the officer’s quarters. These quarters also contained a wall and door that was kept locked and led into a small supply room and access to the powder storage room that was next to but totally separated from the soldiers quarters below. This protected the powder from the elements and any sparks from the fireplace or cannon fire. The cannon deck outside the soldiers quarters was only large enough to hold six cannon which were adequate protection from any ships attempting to enter the river about a mile away. This fort was transferred to Britain in the 1763 Treaty of Paris and then back to Spain following the American Revolution. Spain made little effort to maintain the fort and by the time Florida was transferred to the United States in 1819, it was uninhabitable and never used by the Americans.
1) The Visitor Center is on Anastasia Island south of St. Augustine. It is a very small Visitor Center with only a couple of small exhibits about the fort. Most of the history of the fort can be found at the Costillo de San Marcos since this was just an outpost from that major fortification. They do have a short film that covers the history of the fort and how it was constructed.
2) There is a short nature walk from the Visitor Center that takes visitors to the beach. Most of the walk is on a wooden boardwalk, so travel is very easy and accessible.
3) Since the Fort is located on Rattlesnake Island in the Matanzas River, access is by a ferry from the Visitor Center. The ferry is free and leaves every hour throughout the day, but you must get boarding tickets at the Visitor Center. In January, the Visitor Center was not busy, so we had no problem getting tickets and the ferry was only about 75% full. I would imagine that busier times, such as the weekends, you would want to get your tickets early for later in the day.
4) The ferry ride over to the fort was an interesting way to see the fort, since it is the only visible structure and towers over the low vegetation on the island. At the time the fort was built, Rattlesnake Island was only 4 acres. Today it is over 200 acres due to the dredging of the Intracoastal Waterway and changes in the river currents.
5) Since they have a captive audience, the Park Ranger gave a 5-10 minute presentations giving the highlights of the history and construction of the fort. Then you have about 20 minutes to look for yourself, which is plenty of time since there is only the gun deck and two rooms. The Park Service have reconstructed furnishings in the rooms to give you a good feeling for the living conditions and have reconstructed much of the fort itself, including the chimney leading from the fireplace. They did not reconstruct the wall and door in the officer’s quarters to protected the supplies and access to the powder room. This actually helps since part of the wall is intact so you can see how it would have looked and you can also see the small opening they would have used to descend into the protected and hopefully dry powder room.