Fort Clinch: A History Lovers’ Playground in Fernandina Beach

Fort Clinch in Fernandina Beach

A "view from the top" at Fort Clinch.

Cannons, a maze of underground tunnels, a drawbridge. Is it any wonder kids love exploring Fort Clinch?

The massive fort is in Fort Clinch State Park in Fernandina Beach, with panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean. Contrasting most historic sites, at Fort Clinch there is almost nothing off limits to the public. You can wander through the tunnels; climb steep stone staircases; stand atop walls overlooking the ocean; and of course inspect the cannons up close.

Fort Clinch Cannons

The cannons never had to be used at Fort Clinch.

Building began on the fort in 1847. It was to guard the mouth of the St. Marys River, protect the shipping industry and defend Fernandina’s deep water port. It remains one of our nation’s best examples of a “Third System” fort, containing a two-wall system of brick and earth rather than just one or the other.

During the Civil War, it was occupied at one point by eight Confederate regiments and, at another point, by 16 Union regiments. It never saw battle, but then few forts did: they were seen as more of a deterrent. Fort Clinch was last used by the military during World War II, when surveillance units and mounted patrolmen guarded the beaches against spy landings.

Fort Clinch Stairwell, Fernandina Beach

Exploring is encouraged at Fort Clinch.

Before the fort became a protected historic site, it fell into disrepair, buried under sand and nearly forgotten. Now it’s lovingly maintained by the State of Florida. Among its features, it has:

– a prison
– barracks
– a bakery
– a blacksmith’s shop
– officers’ kitchens and laundry
– enlisted latrine
– lumber shed
– and more.

A brochure for the fort warns visitors it was “built for war, not for safety,” and indeed you need to keep a close watch of small children. With the steep steps, uneven walkways and high walls, there are definitely hazards.

Although this family-friendly fort has some areas that aren’t accessible on wheels, I’ve found it’s quite easy to get around with a stroller. There are large ramps leading to the upper walls, so you can roll right on up to see the cannons and the views from above (and, bonus, get a good workout doing it!).

The fort creates an ideal “teachable moment,” in which you can share history with your kids by letting them explore it for themselves.

Did you know? Fort Clinch is named after General Duncan Lamont Clinch, an Army officer who served as a commander during the First and Second Seminole Wars.

Fort Clinch State Park in Fernandina Beach

Almost every crevice of the massive fort is open to the public.

If you want to go:

Where: 2601 Atlantic Avenue, Fernandina Beach

Call: 904-277-7274

Cost: There is a fee to enter Fort Clinch State Park, and an additional fee to visit the fort, itself. As of December 2011, the charge is $6 per vehicle to enter the park and $2 per person to enter the fort.

Website: floridastateparks.org/fortclinch

Tips: Visit on the first Saturday of the month, when reenactors bring the fort to life. They are also there on Sundays, but Saturday is a much more active day. In the summer, the fort offers late-night, candlelit tours.

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