The 'self-flushing' latrine at 1821's Fort Gaines was ahead of its time
By KELLY KAZEK | Alabama Media Group, Birmingham | Published: January 9, 2020
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (Tribune News Service) — Fort Gaines, a military fortification built in 1821 at the tip of Dauphin Island, is known to many history buffs as the place where Admiral David Farragut, from aboard the USS Hartford just offshore, famously commanded: “Damn the torpedoes – full speed ahead.”
Farragut reportedly gave the command on Aug. 5, 1864, during the Battle of Mobile Bay in the Civil War. But the preserved fortress is the site of other historical accomplishments – including its state-of-the-art “self-flushing” latrine.
When studying military sites and battles, our first thoughts are likely not where the soldiers would relieve themselves but, when you think about it, it had to be among the first considerations of those building a fort. Four hundred men were housed at Fort Gaines at its peak and those men would need facilities in quiet times and during attacks. After all, fighting for one’s life does not preclude nature’s call. So the builders of Fort Gaines came up with a plan to keep the site clean and smelling pretty – or at least less icky.
Building the fort
In 1821, construction began on a fort on Mobile Bay to help protect the eastern portion of the coast from invaders. It was named for War of 1812 veteran, Maj. Gen. Edmund Pendleton Gaines, who died in 1849. He is buried in historic Church Street Graveyard in Mobile, Ala.
An article on Encyclopedia of Alabama says construction was halted soon after it began. “Originally designed in 1818 as the identical twin to Fort Morgan, work on the Dauphin Island fort was suspended in 1821 when Congress cancelled funding. Although Congress again authorized funding for the fort in 1846, construction did not begin until 1857. Army chief engineer Joseph Totten then scrapped the original 1819 plans and designed the pentagon-shaped Fort Gaines using the latest French fortification theory of the 1850s to guard the seaward approaches to Mobile Bay and the eastern entrance of the Mississippi Sound.”
The fort was held by Confederate forces from January 1861 until their defeat in the Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864. Fort Gaines was upgraded in 1901 and 1904 and was active during World War I and, briefly, during World War II. It was abandoned as a military installment and opened as a state park in 1955. (See the virtual tour created by David Brown with Mobile Boy Scout Troop 85 for his Eagle Scout project.)
The exhibits on display today at the fort include a blacksmith, bakery, kitchens, tunnel systems and original cannons, as well as the anchor from the USS Hartford. Historical re-enactments are held regularly at the site, which is open for daily tours at 51 Bienville Boulevard on Dauphin Island. For information, 251-861-6992 or visit dauphinisland.org.
The famed latrine was preserved as an exhibit. It has 10 “seats” or holes, which provided very little privacy for the soldiers housed at the fort. Because the fort is located mere feet from the Gulf of Mexico, builders realized nature could provide a solution to their sanitation issues. The 10 toilets were built so that any waste would be washed out by regularly occurring tides.
The toilets were unusual for another reason: They were designed to be accessed by tunnels at the fort so that even during battle, men could make visits to the latrine when necessary. Because who wants to be under fire while going about his business?
It is even one of the world’s few latrines with its own historical marker, which reads: “This was not your everyday outhouse. It has ten seats that connected by way of a culvert to the Bay. The tide would come in and out once a day and ‘flush’ the toilets. This was necessary being that over 400 men used these latrines daily. It was connected to the courtyard by a long tunnel and to the rifle lines by doorways to the left and right.”
Fort Gaines has been well preserved but its location on the Gulf puts it in a precarious position when storms hit. It has been damaged numerous times by hurricane winds. In 2011, it was named to the list of Most Endangered Historic Places in America by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
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