Nonprofit fighting to save secret Jacksonville fort

The Spanish-American War Fort is at risk of being destroyed

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – One of Jacksonville's hidden treasures, a secret Spanish-American War Fort that dates back 118 years, is in danger of being destroyed by the person who now owns the land.

The forgotten fort sits atop St. Johns Bluff in East Arlington, tucked away on private property near Fort Caroline and Monument roads.

It was built to protect Jacksonville residents during the war, but now, after the property changed hands over the years and ended up being sold at auction, a local nonprofit organization wants to buy it back, so the fort is not torn down. The problem is: the money needs to be raised to purchase it.

The Spanish-American War Fort was built in 1898 when the Cubans were fighting for their independence from Spain. The U.S. military sent the USS Maine to Havana to help, but there was a disaster. The ship exploded and 266 U.S. sailors died. The cause is still debated, but Americans blamed Spain and the war began.

"When you think of the Spanish-American War, most people think about Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt or the sinking of the Maine in Havana harbor. But right here in Jacksonville, we have a piece of that history," explained Daniel Tardona, deputy chief ranger with the National Park Service. "The Army sent troops to the River City, a port where they'd ship southward. Camp Cuba Libre was born -- in what's now Springfield."

Tardona said they were worried about the Spanish invading Jacksonville through the St. Johns River, at the mouth of the river, so they built the fort on St. Johns Bluff -- a concrete battery with powerful protection.

"Any trip down this river, these cannons could have blown them out of the water," said Tardona.

But, the Spanish never invaded and the war ended within three months. The fort was abandoned.

Most people in North Florida have no idea this piece of history remains behind a fence and up a trail on private property.

It's mostly intact. In fact, the 4-foot thick concrete walls along with the underground bunker, where gunpowder and shells would have been stored, still stand today.

The fight to save the fort is now in Jim McCarthy's hands.

"We don't think that is something we should do with our historical places in Jacksonville," he said.

McCarthy is the executive director of the North Florida Land Trust, a local nonprofit organization.

"We need to come up with about $400,000 in order to buy the property," he said. "If you ask me if we are getting a good deal, I will tell you no. But I will tell you that we are where we are."

Regardless, McCarthy believes if the money can't be raised to buy it from the developer who now owns it, the fort will be torn down.

So how did the property end up in the hands of a private owner? In the early 1900s, the government sold the land as surplus. Private owners swapped it out for a century. But a few years ago, the last owner didn't pay the taxes and lost it.

The land was auctioned off and sold in 2013 to the highest bidder for $101,000. That highest bidder was David Radcliffe, and when he bought it, he had no idea the fort even existed. He wanted to build a home on top of the fort and even got an estimate to tear it down.

But the public pushed back and this summer, McCarthy and the North Florida Land Trust stepped in. They made an agreement with Radcliffe: If they can raise $400,000 by November 2016, Radcliffe will sell it.

"I am happy if they can (raise the money and preserve the fort)," Radcliffe said. "If they can't, then I would like for the governmental powers to leave me alone and let me do what I want to with my own property."

Radcliffe said at the moment he would not consider possibly lowering the price. 

"You know, you never say never about anything," Radcliffe added.

Radcliffe is not releasing his exact asking price. The $400,000 is the amount the non-profit needs to raise not only to purchase the land, but to restore the structure on it. He contests that his asking price is consistent with other properties in the area, and said he bought the property to live on himself.

So now, the North Florida Land Trust is fighting the clock to raise the $400,000 needed to buy the land. McCarthy said if the group is successful, it will hand the fort over to the National Park Service so it can be enjoyed for generations to come.

"I think what they're doing is right, and I am definitely in favor of it," said Connie Heffern, who is a neighbor to the fort.

"It needs to be cleaned up and put back in shape as it would really be something nice, you know," added Donald Heffern.

History buffs want the fort saved, too.

"I think it should be taken over by some entity, hopefully the National Park Service, and be developed into a living history park," said Brian Butler, a war reenactor.

The North Florida Land Trust says it has collected some money and even held a fundraiser on the site of the fort.

"It is an important piece of our history, and we need to preserve it," said McCarthy.

McCarthy said that without the money, the fort will never be seen again.

"You can't rebuild this," he added.

As of right now, the North Florida Land Trust has raised $59,000. But Delores Barr-Weaver has offered a challenge to help save the fort. 

If the nonprofit organization collects $300,000, she said she will donate the last $100,000.

Unaccompanied visitors are not allowed to visit the land because it's private property. News4JAX was given special permission.

To help preserve the fort or to learn more about it, go to www.northfloridalandtrust.org.

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