Driving past the acres of tomato fields and blueberry farms on rural St. Helena Island, it's hard to imagine this bucolic setting once harbored a state-of-the-art military defense fortification equipped with cannons capable of hitting enemy battleships 8 miles away.
But there along the sea island's riverfront, guarded by century-old live oaks, stands the remains of Fort Fremont, one of six fortifications designed to protect the southeastern coast of the United States during the Spanish-American War.
Today, visitors can explore the two batteries that were the centerpiece of the 170-acre complex. Now an 18-acre historic site and beach preserve, Fort Fremont is an example of the coastal defense system developed in the early 20th century when the US was setting the stage to become a world power.
Built in 1899 at the start of the Spanish-American War, Fort Fremont's mission was to defend Port Royal Naval Station located across the Beaufort River on Parris Island. A strategic support base for the emerging Atlantic fleet, the navy post included a coaling station and the only dry dock in the South large enough to hold modern battleships.
Fort Fremont's defenses were made up of two reinforced concrete batteries protected by sloped earthworks. The larger structure, Battery Jesup, was equipped with three 10-inch rifled cannons mounted on disappearing carriages. When the gun was fired, the force of its own recoil moved it back behind the parapet, hiding it from view.
The other bastion, known as Battery Fornance, had two 4.72-inch rapid-fire guns designed to prevent small boats from clearing underwater minefields.
At its peak, the fort was manned by 110 men and officers of the 116th Coast Artillery and included barracks, a mess hall, PX, officer and noncommissioned officer quarters, administrative and engineering buildings, stables and a hospital.
An on-site history center, designed in the architecture of the fort's original 65-man barracks, was opened in 2021 by Beaufort County to offer visitors a visual image of the layout of the fort. The large exhibit hall, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the batteries, features a 16-foot-long diorama of the fort and all its buildings along with a diorama of the Port Royal Naval Station it was built to defend. There's also a cutaway model of Battery Jesup, a model of the 10-inch disappearing gun, and historical photos of the fort and the men who occupied it in the 13 years it was in operation from 1898-1912.
Beaufort resident Dennis Cannady, who created the diorama of Bay Street in 1863 that is on display at the John Mark Verdier House in downtown Beaufort, designed and built the Fort Fremont dioramas based on photographs, U.S. plats and military blueprints, noting every detail from the number of panes in the buildings' windows to the placement of trees.
"I tried to replicate it as historically accurate as I could," said Cannady, a retired mechanical engineer with Cadillac.
Like the other fortifications of the period, Fort Fremont never saw combat but simply served as a deterrence against attack. The only structures still standing are the two batteries and the hospital, now a private residence located about a half-mile away.
Every Saturday, the nonprofit Friends of Fort Fremont offers free docent-led tours of the historic site. For visitors who want to tour the property on their own, interpretive signs along the batteries describe the defense system and the history of the fortification. You can also download a Fort Fremont tour app on your Apple or Android smartphone. The history center has limited hours but the park is open daily from dawn to dusk for self-guided tours.