Friday, April 21, 2017

Gulf Island National Seashore and Fort Massachussets

Twelve miles off the shore of Mississippi's coast in the Gulf of Mexico sits a small piece of land named Ship Island that is part of the Gulf Island National Seashore.
Ship Island Excursions provides a ferry service to the island twice daily from the Gulfport Yacht Harbor. The Gulf Islander delivered me right to the dock in a little less than an hour. The trip was enjoyable and a pod of dolphins came to play in the wake of the ferry. Most of the travelers on the Gulf Islander were prepared for sunbathing and picnics, some had come to visit Fort Massachusetts. There were a few serious fishermen and one women with long lens camera equipment who was planning to photograph birds in the afternoon light.
Fort Massachusetts from the dock.
The ferry docked on the North side of West Ship Island. A stingray was surfing the shallow waters of a sandbar as we were getting off the boat.   A boardwalk joins the dock and leads across the island to the south side where the best beaches are located. It is a pleasant walk and goes right past the fort.

Ship Island was originally settled by French explorers in 1699. They valued its deep port and the protection that the island provided from Gulf storms. Ship island served as a base of operations for those explorers settling French Louisiana, land which now makes up the center of our country.
Ship Island has seen action over its years as a port.
During the War of 1812 British ships gathered here before their unsuccessful bid  to capture New Orleans.
That war showed the country's borders to be vulnerable to attack and as a result the US War Department made plans to expand coastal defenses with brick forts known as Third System Forts. One of those forts Fort Massachusetts was to be built on ship island.
During the American Civil War Admiral David Farragut used Ship Island as a supply base as they captured the port cities of New Orleans and Mobile. The brick walls of Fort Massachusetts were only waist high at that point and didn't provide much protection. Ship island was held by Union forces and Confederate forces at different points in the Civil War.

Interior of Fort Massachusetts
Fort Massachusetts was completed in 1866 but never fully fortified. Events at Fort Pulaski during the Civil War proved that the forts defenses were no match for rifled guns whose higher velocity ordnance easily penetrated those thick brick walls.  Fort Massachusetts and other Third order forts that dotted the coast of the United States were made obsolete before their construction was completed.
It is small in comparison to other 3rd order forts that we have visited. There are no parade grounds at the center as we saw in Fort Pulaski and Fort Jefferson, no quarters or storage areas like at Fort Pickens and Fort Hancock.
A park ranger was on site to tell the story of the fort and to answer questions about its construction. It is amazing to me that such imposing structures with such precise details were completed with hand tools, levels and plumb bobs.

Gulf Islander waiting to bring us home
The beaches of West Ship Island are wild and beautiful. No manicuring is done here so you will find driftwood the size of logs, bits of shell and fishing equipment and the occasional plastic bottle dropped from someones boat. 

The beaches on West Ship Island had a combination of light and dark sands.
I expected the sand to be white as seen on other Gulf coast beaches. It was dark like the sand at Caspersen Beach near Venice Florida, and made interesting patterns as the water washed over it. I enjoyed a long leisurely walk along the south side of West Ship Island and was happy to spend some time breathing in the sea air. We are heading inland now and won't breath the ocean air until we arrive in Astoria Oregon in late Summer.

Resting with the fishermen on the way back to the marina.


  1. The fort appears to be in excellent shape, Bonnie! Very nice!

    1. The ranger told us that some repairs had to be made after Camille in the 70's then after Katrina. Before Camille East Ship Island and West Ship Island were one.
      It remains in remarkable condition.