Fort De Soto Park - Excavations at Fort De Soto

Excavations at Fort De Soto

By Waldo Rowell

Logic and calculation, simple tools, and a lot of persistence, pays off!

This is how the hospital foundation looks today.

This is how the hospital foundation looks today! At one time, it was completely covered by several feet of sand and roots.

In 1923, Fort De Soto was deactivated and left with just one caretaker in attendance. Many storms hit the area including hurricanes in 1921, 1926 and 1935. Without maintenance, the buildings deteriorated quickly, although in 1932 twenty-six of the original twenty-nine buildings were still standing. In the early 1940's, anything left of the buildings was sold for scrap and the area was bulldozed.

When I began to volunteer at the Park in 1994, Bob Browning, Park Supervisor, asked if I would be interested in finding the footings of the original buildings. Some work on finding these footings had been started by students from Eckerd College who had excavated the footings of the three Officers' Quarters. These footings were made of poured concrete, about two and a half feet square; brick pilings were then placed on top of the concrete. In most cases, few of the bricks remained. However, having copies of the original layout of the Post buildings, I was able to locate the next footings by measuring from those footings still remaining on the surface of the ground. Once, the concrete was exposed, a brick mason, a Park employee, reconstructed the foundation piers on fifteen of the buildings. Not all buildings could be found as any remnants of the fire apparatus house, wells, a water tank and the pump house are under the present day parking lot.

probing for clues

Hit and miss, like playing the childs game called "battleship".

The hospital is the last building I excavated. One of the foundation piers at the ell at the rear of the west wing was visible. I had already learned that the footings were about 8.5 to 9 feet apart. With that information, I was able to locate the other three footings about 3 feet below the ground surface. Obviously past storms had covered these footings fairly deep in sand.

Now that I had found the footings of the ell, I moved forward to find the footings for the west wing itself. But everywhere I sounded with a strong metal rod, the bottom I hit felt as if it were concrete. It just did not seem possible that there was concrete in such a location, so I suspected some anomaly in the soil. Since I didn't want to dig about three feet down in such heavily compacted sand and roots, I measured again and moved to what should be the southwest corner of the west wing.

Once I located this corner, I dug deep and found remnants of a brick wall. Upon digging for a time along the west and south walls, I discovered a cement floor in the west wing. Next a Park employee used a backhoe to finish digging out the dirt in the area, exposing what appeared to be a cellar with a smooth concrete floor. Another surprise was the existence of a row of slate imbedded in the concrete about 6 feet from the east wall. Along one edge of the slate was a metal track. Is it possible the track was used for a sliding door?

slate and a metal track in the floor.

The slate on the floor and a metal track were mysteries for a while.

Yes, I had found the hospital. Yes, the foundation had been exposed and the brick walls partially restored by a mason. But there were still questions to be answered. Why was there a concrete floor? No other building had a basement. What purpose did the basement serve? Was it an operating room? Was it a storage area? Inquiries to other facilities of the same period brought no answers.

However, very fortunately, in the fall of 2001, Bruce McCall, Research Archivist for the Egmont Key Alliance, in a trip to the National Archives found the answer: the basement was used for a "Dead Room" or morgue, storage for medical supplies, and ordinary storage. There was also a set of stairs leading up one flight to the hospital's kitchen.

Today, as you stand near the hospital and look at the surrounding area, you can see how deep the concrete floor was below the original ground level.

These are the tools that did the work.

These are the tools that were used!

People sometimes ask me what tools I used to find the footings. The most important item was a large notebook in which there were pictures of the buildings, plans for the layout of each building, and an area map showing the location of each building in relation to the others. Then I needed heavy-duty brush cutters to clear away the brush plus a rake to clear away years of debris where a possible footing might be found. A tape measure was invaluable to ensure that the measurements were correct. Then I needed a sturdy metallic probe to push into the ground wherever I suspected the location of a footing. And, of course, once a footing was located, I needed a shovel to remove the dirt.

Come walk along the Historical Trail. Each building has now been outlined in shell so it is easy to use your imagination to recreate the Post as it would have been about one hundred years ago. Look at the one reconstructed building, the Quartermaster Storehouse, now a museum. Pay tribute to the young men of that era who endured heat and cold, mosquitoes and other flying, biting insects, hours of drilling in all kinds of weather on the parade ground, hours of drilling as they practiced loading the 8 12-inch mortars of Battery Laidley and the 2 3-inch mortars of Battery Bigelow. All of this while wearing woolen uniforms. These young men, far from home, dedicated years of service to defend and protect our country from the possibility of foreign invaders.

In remembrance, we honor their service to our country.

Waldo Rowell is a Volunteer History Docent who conducts fort history tours, when he's not uncovering hidden history.

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