In the past two weeks I’ve taken you from our home in Madison, Wisconsin to a short visit to the Great Smoky Mountains then to St. Simons Island near the Georgia/Florida line where we spent Thanksgiving week. This week we begin our visits to several nearby national monuments, seashores, and historic sites. Our first stop was at the Castillo de San Marcos located in St. Augustine, Florida. Our route to the Castillo took us back onto the racetrack also called I-95 to cross over into Florida. We made a stop at the Florida welcome center and found it was very busy with both holiday travelers and snow birds making the trip from the north to spend the winter in milder climes. The staff offered samples of orange and grapefruit juice making for a nice, positive view of the State.
Before reaching the Castillo, we decided to have some lunch to feed our hungry stomachs. A couple of our co-travelers used the apps on their phones to search for a local, interesting restaurant and found the quirky, eclectic Back 40 Urban Cafe located in a repurposed old house in an aging neighborhood. The food, service and atmosphere was excellent, highly recommended by our crew!
With our hunger satisfied and thirst quenched, we made the short trip over to the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument. A warning: be prepared to pay a princely sum ($15) for a few hours of parking but there aren’t many other choices that we could find. So we sucked it up and moved on! After a stop at the St. Augustine Old Town visitor center we joined the crowds headed over to the Monument. It was the Sunday before Thanksgiving and there were lots of people out and about on the beautiful, warm day, many of them visiting the fort while others strolled along the Matanzas Bay or checked out other nearby attractions.
The Castillo is the oldest masonry fort in the US. Construction began in 1672 over a 100 years after the founding of the city of St. Augustine. The stones of the fort are made of coquina, a sedimentary rock made mostly of shell fragments that were in plentiful supply in this part of the country. While coquina isn’t particularly hard, it worked great for fortresses because cannonballs would sink into the stone rather than break or shatter the stone. The fort was constructed mainly by laborers brought in from Havana and locals forced to help, mostly likely at the end of a spear!
The Castillo has a long and interesting history. After completion, the Spaniards ruled La Florida and more importantly, the shipping lanes up and down the coast.
In the 1760, the British gained control of St. Augustine and the Castillo through the Treaty of Paris and renamed the fort, Fort St. Mark. That lasted about 20 years when through the Peace of Paris, Florida was transferred back to Spain until 1820 when it was ceded to the US. It was then designated an Army base and renamed Ft. Marion. One of the uses of this fort was to incarcerate Native Americans such as the local Seminoles and leaders of the Apache, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Comanche, Arapaho and other tribes from the West and Plains. The Castillo became a national monument in 1924 by order of President Calvin Coolidge. The fort was attacked twice in it’s history, once by British forces in 1702 and then by the Georgia Militia in 1740. During the War between the States, the Confederate Army occupied the Castillo until 1862 when Union soldiers attacked only to find it deserted after the Confederate troops fled.
As we were taking the self-guided tour of the Castillo, we heard an announcement that they were going to shoot off a cannon. I immediately headed up the stairs to secure a choice spot for photos. As I reached the top I saw the large crowd already gathered to witness the cannon shooting ritual. So I grabbed a small piece of real estate with a good site line to the cannon where I could use my telephoto lens to capture the action. First, a park ranger dressed in a period uniform gave an explanation of how the cannon worked and the ritual of preparing to shoot a cannonball at the enemy.
Then the troops were called into formation and proceeded through the firing process. I eagerly waited for the announcement to cover my ears or insert the ear plugs that were handed out. So here’s what happened, I was looking through my camera lens with my finger on the shutter button waiting for the cannon to fire but when it went off, I jerked the camera up in surprise that resulted in a blurry photo of the top of the heads of the cannoneers! Fortunately for me, about an hour later there was another cannon shoot and since I had previous experience with the cannon firing, I was prepared for the loud explosion. As least you can tell what the photos are about!
This is where the cannon was aiming. A little kid near me was disappointed that the boat in the harbor didn’t explode and sink after the cannon shot. But then again, so was I!
After the shoot, visitors could talk with the reenactors and get up close and personal with the cannon. The young kids were particularly enamored by the gentlemen in uniform.
After a few hours of touring the Castillo, talking with some of the rangers and volunteers and getting our National Park passports stamped, we hiked over to the nearby Old Town to check out the scene. We sampled some ice cream, looking in the windows of the souvenir shops, watched the people promenading up and down the passageway and voiced our curiosity about the gourmet popsicles offered by one of the shops.
As we strolled back to the parking garage, we encountered this sign and wondered if it was for real. For an admission fee, visitors could tour the school, with our doubts we continued on our way!
One last photo without much of a connection to the Castillo but of historic significance. I wondered what the residents of the burying grounds would think of the highway signs near their final resting place!
Thanks for taking the brief tour of the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument. If you are in the area, its definitely worth a stop at one of the oldest historic sites in the US. Up next week on Christmas Eve is our visit to Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve.
Until then, travel safe.