February 5, 2014. Courtesy of The State Port Pilot. http://stateportpilot.com/
By Lee Hinnant
Local historian Jim McKee and representatives from the National Park Service and State Historic Preservation Office inspect the World War I-era rifle pit at Caswell Dunes.
“Placed into service during the Civil War, the Spanish-American War and the two World Wars, Fort Caswell Historic District remains one of the best-preserved and extensive coastal fortifications in the United States.”
The federal government has officially recognized the historic value of Fort Caswell and associated structures and listed the Fort Caswell Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.
The designation includes 760 acres owned by the N.C. Baptist Assembly at the eastern tip of Oak Island and the nearby rifle range owned by Caswell Dunes homeowners. Forty-three buildings, 23 structures and one site compose the Fort Caswell district, now used mainly as a retreat and learning center by the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.
Designation is a milestone for the Baptist Assembly and for a Caswell Beach community-based effort to save the former rifle range, now a public space next to the Oak Island Golf Course.
“We made it,” said Ron Eckard, a Caswell Dunes resident, who, with his wife Norma, has been working to save the rifle range. “We are so pleased that MdM Historical Consultants Inc. was able to complete and navigate our application through the process.”
Richard Holbrook, director of the N.C. Baptist Assembly, which owns the main Fort Caswell complex, praised the work of the consultant who prepared the registration documents for the National Parks Service. Jennifer Martin Mitchell of MdM Historical Consultants Inc. did an outstanding job assembling documents and photographs, Holdbrook said.
“It was time for us to do that,” Holbrook said, noting that Fort Caswell was already recognized as a historic property by the state.
Martin wrote in her report that the listing in no way restricts how owners may use the property. Listing, however, does protect a property from potentially harmful uses by the state or federal governments, including road projects, cell towers or other activities funded or licensed by the federal government.
“Placed into service during the Civil War, the Spanish-American War and the two World Wars, Fort Caswell Historic District remains one of the best-preserved and extensive coastal fortifications in the United States,” the report stated. “Although the fort’s function changed over time…the complex continued to play an important role in this country’s history of defense…
“Its architectural significance lies in the survival of the extensive collection of buildings and structure, many built according to standardized plans issues by the United State government, that remain intact and well-preserved thank to the efforts of the N.C. Baptist State Convention, which purchased the property in 1949…”
The report details the history and architecture of every structure on the property, which offers sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean, Cape Fear River and salt marsh of the former Elizabeth River.
The first fortifications were started in 1827. During the Civil War, the fort was home to as many as 800 soldiers. Construction of other batteries was ramped-up during the Spanish-American War. In World War I, the fort and associated structures occupied most of Oak Island and included spotlights and small gun emplacements all the way from the main fort to Long Beach.
The rifle pit at Caswell Dunes was used for long-range target training and is one of the few remaining in the nation.
During World War II, the fort served as a submarine tracking station, training and communications center and supply base for small naval craft. A hospital also cared for injured sailors and soldiers.
The Fort Caswell listing on the National Register is the 15th in Brunswick County. It makes the third listed property at Caswell Beach. The others are the Oak Island Lighthouse and the Oak Island Lifesaving Station, which is now a private residence.