We're starting our exterior tour of the national monument, outside of the park visitor center. Located near the parking lot and close by historic Fort Pulaski, the visitor center has a unique story of its own.
When Fort Pulaski National Monument was opened for visitors in the late 1930s it did not have a place to greet visitors outside of the fort. After World War II, as Americans began visiting national parks in unprecedented numbers, Conrad Wirth, the director of the National Park Service, conceived a comprehensive program to revitalize the national parks. This ten-year program, in the lead up to the National Park Services 50th anniversary in 1966, was called Mission 66, and aimed to modernize and expand the national park system.
Several Mission 66-era projects were undertaken at Fort Pulaski beginning in the late 1950s, the largest of which was the creation of this freestanding visitor center. Construction of the visitor center began in late 1962, and the building was completed and opened to the public in October of 1964. The one-story brick structure was designed by the National Park Service Eastern Office of Design and Construction and takes much inspiration from Eero Saarinen’s Kresge Chapel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. Both buildings have a similar circular plan, base arches, rusticated brick, and surrounding gravel moats. One main difference, however, is the height of the new building. It was kept low to prevent it from intruding on the historic fort. The visitor center currently contains an exhibit on Fort Pulaski, a small theater, an information desk, and ranger offices.
To make your way Fort Pulaski, we would take this concrete path to the first drawbridge. However on this tour we won't be heading inside. If you’d like to learn more about the interior of Fort Pulaski, I recommend our fort interior virtual tour on our website.
After the War of 1812 there was a push by the United States to better protect its maritime interests. From 1816 through the end of the American civil war in the 1860s, the United States constructed over 40 state of the art coastal fortifications, which includes Fort Pulaski, which was built to protect the port of Savannah. Construction of the fort began in 1829 and took 18 years to complete.
The Fort was designed with defensive features on its west side, and that is what you see today. Fort Pulaski is a masonry fortress surrounded by water. Not only is it on an island in the Savannah River, it has a moat as well. This moat, which averaged 7 feet in depth, was 48 feet wide around the main fort and 32 feet wide around the triangular demi-lune you see across the way. So you see the water was a major obstacle. It was wide enough and deep enough to stop just about anyone. Not only were soldiers worried about drowning. They were worried about be shot at as well. The demi-lune, which is French for half moon, allowed for cannon to be emplaced on it, protected by the earthern and masonry walls. They could not only fire at ships in the channels of the Savannah River, they could fire upon attacking forces as well.
The demilune also saw the most change. While most people close the door on Fort Pulaski after the famous 1862 artillery battle. The demilune was modified several times. The large earthworks that you see were gun powder magazines that were added in the 1870s for heavy caliber cannon. The biggest mound that you see to the right of the drawbridge was the nerve center for an underwater mining operation based out of Fort Pulaski in the 1890s. So while the fort may have been obsolete for it’s initial function, the United States Army continued to look for ways to keep the fort in fighting shape.