Dauphin Island, Alabama: Fort Gaines


It’s just about as far south as you can go in Alabama: Dauphin Island is a delicate, thin stretch of sand, several miles out in the Gulf of Mexico, connected to the mainland by a long 2-lane bridge.  Dauphin is fragile: in 2005, Hurricane Katrina ripped it in half, even though the storm made landfall two states away.  Remarkably, the island’s most impressive historic relic has been spared.

Fort Gaines is one of the forts built in the 1800’s to watch over the entry to Mobile Bay (another is Fort Morgan, on the opposite side of the mouth of the bay).  It took decades to secure the land and the funding, then finally complete work on Fort Gaines.  The final touches were added after the civil war had already begun.

It’s hard to believe Fort Gaines has been standing for nearly a century and a half.  The thick concrete walls that surround the fort are still standing strong, no doubt thanks to preservation efforts.

Visitors enter through the sally port, passing through the thick walls, through a gift shop where you pay an admission fee, then into the giant courtyard.

At the center of the courtyard, you’ll see the anchor from Rear Admiral David Farragut’s ship, the USS Hartford.  Farragut became famous for one particular order he shouted, during the Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864: “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”

The Battle of Mobile Bay was an intense fight that allowed the Union to take control of lower Mobile Bay.  Admiral Farragut ordered his ship to move forward through a minefield (mines were known as torpedoes at the time).  The dangerous move allowed the Union to pummel the Confederate fleet, and once their ships sank or were rendered useless, the surrounding forts surrendered.

The gun emplacements on the top of the fort are still easy to spot.  Also notice the wall…

… where a shell exploded, during the battle of Mobile Bay.

Each corner of the 5-sided fort has a bastion, with cannons mounted up top…

… and a narrow, spiral-stair passageway to ground level.  The stairs lead to tunnels that allow access to the courtyard…

… as well as some large chambers which would have served as artillery magazines — storage areas for powder and shells.

Fort Gaines had some remarkable features, such as three “disappearing” guns, added around the time of the Spanish-American War, which could be raised to the top of the wall, or lowered.

Designers of the fort also came up with an innovative (for the 1800’s) way of flushing away the waste of 400 men.  Sure, this 10-seat latrine didn’t allow much for privacy, and I didn’t see a single toilet-paper roll holder, but it still got the job done, thanks to the tides.  Every day, the tide would come in through a culvert, and flush out the outhouse.

Fort Gaines was my only stop on Dauphin Island.  I turned back to the mainland, instead of checking out the western end of the island.  You can drive part-way down the west end of the island, up until the point where Hurricane Katrina broke it apart.  Along the way, you’ll see a lot of big, expensive homes on stilts — all of them sitting ducks, waiting for the next big hurricane.

Drivelapse Video

Here’s the dash-cam time-lapse video of the drive onto, and off of, Dauphin Island:


Dauphin Island is at the southern end of Alabama Route 193.  From I-10, take exit 17 or 22.  After returning to the mainland, I chose to head west on Rte. 188, through Coden, Bayou La Batre, and Grand Bay, Alabama, before meeting up with US 90 for the drive into Mississippi.

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