Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Exploring Fort Mott

Stop two on the refuge/fort/cemetery tour was Fort Mott State Park in lovely Pennsville, NJ.

Located on the shore of the Delaware River, Fort Mott was one of three Endicott-era installations built during the mid- and late 19th century to protect the mouth of the river, and the only one located in New Jersey. Just across, on Pea Patch Island, is Fort Delaware, and Fort du Pont is at Reedy Point, just east of Delaware City.  During the summer, a ferry shuttles visitors between Mott and Pea Patch Island, but in the winter, you're pretty much on your own.

Fort Mott once had more than 30 buildings, including offices, barracks, housing and a hospital, but many structures were taken down after the property was transferred to the State of New Jersey following World War II. Just about all that's left now are the gun batteries, a few buildings, a magazine and some observation towers. Given New Jersey's budget issues, the buildings were closed, but we could still roam around and read the wayside signs to learn more.

To start, we found out a bit about the man who lent his name to the fort, Major General Gershom Mott, a native of Lamberton, near Trenton. Serving with distinction in the Civil War, he was wounded several times and eventually elevated to the rank of Major General. Following the war, he was offered a commission in the regular army, but chose instead to return to civilian life. Even then, he continued in public service as New Jersey state treasurer, major general and commander of the state's national guard. Turns out there's also a legend of questionable authenticity that his grandfather guided Washington's troops on the Delaware before the decisive Battle of Trenton. In any case, he's quite an impressive guy.

The batteries lining the shore side of the fort are impressive in length: a 700 foot expanse that's a 35 feet thick mound of earth and concrete. They once housed disappearing guns -- three 10-inch and three 12-inch -- that could fire ammo weighing up to 1000 pounds to a distance of eight miles. Several smaller, rapid-fire guns were also installed in the batteries.

Per custom, each of the batteries was named for a military veteran who had distinguished himself in service, and one has a distinctly New Jersey connection. Brigadier General Charles Harker was a local boy, born in nearby Swedesboro, and was killed in action in the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia, in 1864. Ivan looked him up later and found that Harker had been orphaned at a young age and commissioned to West Point on the recommendation of his boyhood employer, who eventually became a member of Congress.

I thought I had a pretty decent knowledge of battery construction and technology from all of the wandering I've done around Fort Hancock at Sandy Hook. However, there was one thing that totally threw me at Fort Mott: the latrine system. A very informative sign explained that the toilets at the batteries worked on a gravity system, with the, uh, deposits running down into the moat in front of the batteries as an added deterrent for those who'd attempt to overtake the fort.  It worked for castles in the middle ages, why not forts in the 1800s? (Still, though -- if you're hell bent on invading, is a little poop gonna stop you? Can you imagine telling your commanding officer you didn't complete your mission because you didn't want to muck up your boots?)

Beyond the fort itself, the park is a relaxing place to have a picnic, play some ball or toss a frisbee on the expansive parade grounds. You can also enjoy a scenic view of Fort Delaware or the distant Salem Nuclear Power Station from the ferry dock. On the unusually warm February day when we visited, several families and couples were capitalizing on the sunny weather to get some fresh air into their lungs.

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