From its perch atop the bluffs, Fort Barrancas has witnessed decades upon decades of battles and conflicts along the Gulf Coast. The current fort, which was built between 1839 and 1844 atop an older bastion, protected a small sliver of Florida’s coast for centuries.
Before the American government took over the land, the Spanish, who more or less claimed the area until 1819, had strategically stationed a base there. Fort Barrancas was actually constructed atop the ruins of Fort San Carlos de Barrancas, a Spanish fort built in 1798. When it was built, there was an additional Spanish water battery tucked below the bluffs.
Fort Barrancas was the site of a pre-Civil War skirmish that happened just months before the war officially began. Florida militia, who opposed the recently elected President Abraham Lincoln, stormed the fort and demanded the U.S. soldiers stationed there surrender it to them. On January 10, 1861—the same day Florida seceded from the Union—the soldiers deserted Fort Barrancas and headed to Fort Pickens. Confederate soldiers were later stationed at Fort Barrancas until Union forces reclaimed the site over a year later.
The fort was decommissioned after World War II, after new technology rendered it obsolete. It opened to the public in 1980. People can wander around the old fortress and artillery battery to learn about its history. The tunnels that snake beneath the surface feel like portals to the fort’s past. The site also serves as the visitor center for the Gulf Islands National Seashore.