More than 150 years after Cockspur Island heard its final shot, Fort Pulaski National Monument still finds itself fighting on the front line. N.W. Gabbey and Emma N. Hurt go back in time to get a sense of our future.
Photography by BEAU KESTER
Last October, late in the month, U.S. Highway 80 East disappeared. No one was able to get from the mainland to Tybee Island, or vice versa, and residents were, quite literally, marooned for several hours until the water retreated and U.S. 80 re-emerged. The extreme flooding that morning was caused by the atmospheric collusion of a supermoon, a king tide, excessive on-shore winds and rising sea levels—a freak convergence, but one that certainly caught our collective attention.
Jackie Jackson, a comprehensive planner with the Chatham County-Savannah Metropolitan Planning Commission, was born and raised in Savannah. Speaking as part of a “Rising Tides” panel for an Emergent Savannah community discussion earlier this year, Jackson said she didn’t recall 80 being so covered by water, not even when she was a child.
On that same panel, Dr. Clark Alexander Jr., a coastal geologist for the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography (SkIO), questioned what the past could tell us about what we might expect in the future.
“Sea level rise has been happening for millions of years,” says Alexander, “but how fast and how high and how much are we contributing to it are the questions people are discussing.”
The only primary tide gauge in the state of Georgia is at Fort Pulaski National Monument, located behind the Savannah Bar Pilot House at the entrance to the Savannah River. Data on tides, sea level trends and extreme water levels have been recorded continuously here since 1935, not long after the fort was transferred to the National Park Service. Extrapolating those 80-plus years of data, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency’s graphs show a sea level rise of just over a foot in the last 100 years. Although 12.5 inches might not grab the attention of those without waterfront property, Dr. Alexander says that this rate of rise is “not natural” and is “very sobering.”
And it’s this observable change backed by scientific data and coupled with shipping activity on the river that have put Fort Pulaski back on the front lines long after its war service. That isn’t to paint the image of otters wearing bandoliers and pelicans flying recon missions, but all the same, this magnificent habitat and its furry, feathered and finned denizens are fighting the good fight for our modern earth—as are its historic treasures. The battle, if you will, is now a largely peaceful one whose prevailing cry is the perpetual lapping of water against shoreline.
To the right of the main driveway entering Fort Pulaski on Cockspur Island, an area of sunken ground looks strange, dark and dry as if a fire has burned through recently, but the trees stand tall.
Melissa Memory, superintendent for Fort Pulaski, explains that the island’s dike system, designed and managed in 1829 by a young West Point graduate by the name of Robert E. Lee, has not been able to handle sea level rise in recent years. It was designed to preserve the integrity of the island, but is threatened by the north shore erosions. This former salt marsh is proof of the ecological change, she explains. That dark and dry earth used to be healthy vegetated marsh, but the salt water intrusion has killed the grasses that once filled its basins.
There is no reason to expect that erosion was a concern even fathomed by Lee and his men, who moved the earth in this era—although an 1831 survey of Cockspur Island and a corresponding soil study did force Lee and his fellow engineers to abandon further engineering efforts. Still, his dikes, sluices and embankments have remained viable until recently.
Visitors can still stand on those antebellum structures and watch the big container ships cruise up and down the North Channel to and from the Port of Savannah. But, how this view has changed in just the last 10 years, due to a combination of environmental and cultural factors, is startling.
“If we don’t take care of the environment, we can’t take care of the history,” Memory cautions. “We have a lot of other stories that haven’t been told yet.”
One of those stories is the role of African Americans in the fort’s history, beginning with its construction by slave labor. Another chapter is being uncovered right now by the Southeast Archaeological Center, which is assessing a contraband camp. When the Union Army seized control of Fort Pulaski from the South, the site became an integral stop on the Underground Railroad network. Plantation owners would demand their slaves back, but the Union soldiers would claim the slaves as “contraband.” Some slaves made their way to barrier islands or as far as the Bahamas; others joined the 1st and 3rd South Carolina Volunteers, some of the first black troop divisions in the Civil War.
Using ground-penetrating radar and historic maps, SAC is only beginning to piece together its story. Excavation will begin either this fall or next year, but its location near the north pier causes concern.
In 1830, the coastline along the north shore of Cockspur Island where Lee and his fellow engineers built Fort Pulaski’s embankment and North Wharf, was an extensive and grassy salt marsh. Today, the grassline has receded well behind the remains of the original granite pier footings.
Since 2007, the administrators at Fort Pulaski have seen more than a hundred feet of erosion along a mile-plus stretch of beach on the river’s North Channel. According to Alexander, the worst spots near the north pier were eroding at 10 meters per year, washed away by rising sea levels, trapped high tides and wake energy from commercial ships. The solution, at least for the moment, was creative and cooperative. More important, it was immediate.
According to Russell Wicke of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District, routine dredging for the harbor is done periodically throughout the year along the 33-mile Savannah River channel to maintain a “deep-draft harbor” that can accommodate commercial container vessels, particularly laden ones. The channel was once a natural depth of 12 to 15 feet, but has steadily been dredged to 20 feet, then 30 and eventually the proposed 47 feet.
Back in September, the Corps of Engineers, Park Service and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources arranged for the “spoil” from an already scheduled dredge to be placed along Cockspur’s vulnerable north shore, instead of being put on the South Carolina side of the river. In a little less than a month, more than 200,000 cubic yards of dredged sand was placed along a 1.5-mile section. Because the dredge was planned, the Corps of Engineers effectively saved the National Park Service approximately $2.5 million.
Clark says, “This is a great example of beneficial use of dredge material,” a practice on the rise across the globe, though he admits that this is a stop-gap measure.
What was done last fall has not only addressed an emergency ecological need in a restorative manner, but it has also rejuvenated an area of Cockspur Island. If species that once thrived in the marshes were forced out, new species that will thrive in and along a sandy coastline will move in. On a Chamber-of-Commerce Sunday afternoon, Memory points out the new beach. It seems as if it has always been here, the natural golden result of tide and time. More than a dozen folks are walking their dogs and wading into the river, and Memory wonders if they knew that the place where they stand was under water just a few months ago.
Did You Know?
One of the earliest known photographs of a baseball game was taken at Fort Pulaski of the 48th New York Infantry Division enjoying some downtime in 1862. Image courtesy of National Park Service, Fort Pulaski National Monument.