Quintessentially Lowcountry: Fort Frederick -- a fortress within a fortress

On the shores of the Beaufort River, a piece of local and state history is kept hidden away.

Behind a black chain-link fence topped with barbed wire at Naval Hospital Beaufort, a dirt path littered with acorns and broken oyster shells leads down to the river. In the shade of several large live oak trees sits the ruins of Fort Frederick, a 275-year-old British fort built to protect Beaufort from attacks by Indians and the Spanish from St. Augustine, Fla.

All that remains of the fort today are three-foot walls of tabby -- a building material that predates concrete, made of a mixture of lime, sand and oyster shells -- that mark the fort's southwest bastion. The northeast bastion is submerged 100 feet into the Beaufort River, and is visible at low tide, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

Believed by historians to be the oldest standing tabby structure in the state, Port Royal town officials say they wish more people had a chance to learn the history of Fort Frederick and tour its ruins. Access to the three-acre site has been limited since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C.

"It's crazy. I've never understood it," said Port Royal Town Councilman Joe Lee of the locked-away fort. "In the seven or eight years that I've lived here, I've never been to that site. It really makes no sense to me. It's a very, very important historical site."

Capt. Mark Bernier, the hospital's commanding officer, said that although the hospital is proud to be home to the fort's ruins, he regrets that Naval security policies prevent more people from accessing the site.

"(Naval Hospital Beaufort) is honored to have so much history so close to the hospital but it is unfortunate that many people don't know about Fort Frederick and ... that it is so difficult for those who would like to tour it to get access," Bernier said.

Part of the 127 acres of riverfront land the Navy bought in 1945 to build Naval Hospital Beaufort, the Fort Frederick site was donated to the state as part of the National Park Service's Federal-Lands-to-Parks Program in1997.

Visits to the fort can be arranged through the DNR, said Brian Long, the department's cultural preserve manager.

The Common House of Assembly of South Carolina commissioned the fort in January 1726 to protect the deep water approach to Beaufort and named it in honor of Prince Frederick Louis, son of King George II of England, according to the National Register of Historical Places.

Completed in 1734, the fort contained a barracks and a magazine and was home to a company of British soldiersuntil their transfer toGeorgia in 1736.

The 9,000-square-foot fort never came under siege and provided little protection to the area's British inhabitants, James Glen, the Royal Governor of South Carolina, claimed in a 1748 missive to Charles Noel Somerset, the Duke of Beaufort.

"It is injudiciously situated, monstrously constructed and made of oyster shells, and is called a fort, but a garden fence is as strong," Glen wrote."It is really worse than nothing."

Used as a military base for less than two decades, the fort was deserted by 1758 and replaced by Fort Lyttleton, another British tabby fort further up the river on Spanish Point. Fort Lyttleton was destroyed in the Revolutionary War, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

Though it might not have been a valuable military asset to the British, the fort's historical value to Beaufort and the state is worth exploring, said Stephen Wise, a local historian and director of the Parris Island Museum.

"It's real sad that people can't get to it, but it's a naval security thing," Wise said.