By Brendan Schurr
FORT MOTT — In a curve of coastline on New Jersey's south west comer stands a military fort that in the 1800s was considered by the federal government to be crucial in protecting the Delaware River from attack.
Fort Mott, along with Fort Delaware on Pea Patch Island in the middle of the river and Fort DuPont in Delaware, was built to protect industries and shipping along the river. Any hostile ship that rounded the bend, about 30 miles from the river's mouth, would be a sitting target for soldiers at the three forts.
Later in the century, concerned that the country's coastlines were vulnerable and fearing attack from the Spanish in the Spanish-American War, President Grover Cleveland ordered defenses throughout the nation strengthened. As part of that effort, earthen embankments reinforced with 35 feet of concrete were built at Fort Mott to look like natural hills, and huge "disappearing guns" were installed.
While it never came under attack, Fort Mott remained a working military installation until after World War II. "It's better to have it and not use it than to need it and not have it, "Andres Grant, a visitor services assistant, said while conducting a tour of the fort on a recent afternoon.
Visitors today can learn how the guns were loaded, fired and reloaded, almost entirely out of the view of river traffic, and can take a walking tour of the gun emplacements, the magazine where gunpowder was stored and hoisted by crank to the weapons above and the soldiers' perpetually self-flushing toilets. Of the 33 buildings that once stood on the 104-acre fort, including a bakery, a hospital, a carpenter's shop and a theater, only a few remain; most were dismantled or moved. A bright yellow building that was the post headquarters now serves as a visitor center and gift shop, and the jail cells have been converted to a guard house and public restrooms.
The fort is named for Maj. Gen. Gershom Mott, a Bordentown native who was a decorated veteran of the Mexican-American and Civil wars. Mott also served as state treasurer and supervisor of the state prison system. The "disappearing guns" were the main weapons and most significant feature of Fort Mott. The six rifles — three of which were 10 inches in diameter and three of which were 1 foot in diameter — were mounted on cartridges behind the sloping concrete and earthen embankments. The guns, with 25-foot-long barrels, were loaded while in the "down" or "recoiled" position by a team of 30 soldiers. The shells for the smaller guns weighed 617 pounds, while the 12-inch guns required 1,000-pound shells.
After a gun was loaded, a heavy lead counterweight was released and dropped into a pit below, elevating the gun above the embankment for firing. Once fired, the gun recoiled, disappeared below the wall and was camouflaged again. The guns used so much gunpowder that the loud blasts could be heard for miles and disrupted local farm life.
Visitors to Fort Mott can take a ferry to Fort Delaware to learn about its place in Civil War history. Ferries operate Wednesday through Sunday. Visitors also can tour the small Finn's Point National Cemetery, accessible via Fort Mott's main entrance. It contains the graves of 2,436 Confederate soldiers who died while prisoners of war at Fort Delaware. More than 130 Union soldiers who died while serving as guards at the fort prison also are buried on the federally owned plot.
Fort Delaware, which was overcrowded and had a high water table, was unsuitable for burial, so corpses were transported to Finn's Point, 1/2 miles away.
Finn's Point made headlines in 1997, when murderer Andrew Cunanan passed through while federal officials. The Fort Mott visitor center also serves as the welcome center for the Delsea region of the state's Coastal Heritage Trail. The trail, which begins at Fort Mott and runs south along the Delaware River then north along the Atlantic Coast, highlights places that are part of New Jersey's maritime history, coastal habitats and migration.
Fort Mott State Park
454 Fort Mott Road, Pennsville, NJ 08070
Web site: http://www.state.nj.us/dep/forestry/parks/fortmot.htm
You can also learn more about Fort Mott and the New Jersey Heritage Trail by clicking here.
Turnpike south to last exit onto Rt. 295. Go east on Rt.49 and take six traffic light right onto Fort Mott Rd. Go 5 mi. to park on right.
Self guided walking tours, picnic area, pavilion with restrooms, welcome center.
This beautiful 106-acre park was originally built at Finn's Point as part of the federal government's plan for defending the Delaware River. It was part of an elaborate system of hundreds of fortifications designed to protect American harbors against foreign attack. Based on a plan devised in 1794, most of these forts were built in the 19th century and later modified to keep up with technological advances.
Fortifications as they exist here today were built in 1896 in anticipation of the Spanish-American War. Visitors can take a Self-Guided Tour, aided by an interpretive map, and explore the remnants of a once-important military installation.
Though the fort was disarmed long ago and the guns are gone, the various emplacements and magazines lining the 750 foot-long parapet are impressive to see. Aided by the map, visitors can easily piece together what this fort was like in its day.
The parapet is composed of poured concrete, its wall thirty-five feet thick. Combined with an additional thirty feet of sand and earth, the walls concealed and protected guns and crew from seaward attack. In all there are eleven stops on the tour, each highlighting some unique feature of the fort.
The Visitor Center features exhibits on New Jersey's Coastal Heritage Trail and the History of Fort Mott.
Groups, including School Groups, can enjoy an educational Guided Tour. Call to discuss your group's needs with park staff.
Copyright © 2001-
, Terry Muse
Revised: October 8, 2001
Contact: Terry Muse
Coastal Heritage Trail | Delsea Region