GRAND ISLE, LA (WVUE) - At one time in the mid-1800s, Southeast Louisiana had a total of eight forts that protected coastal waters from invasion. Today, the largest of those forts, and the only one on the Gulf of Mexico, sits alone on a barrier island just east of Grand Isle. FOX 8's Dave McNamara takes us to Grand Terre Island in tonight's Heart of Louisiana.
Grand Terre has a long history of being abandoned. It was once home to Native Americans, then the fortified headquarters of privateer Jean Lafitte. It was the site of a 20th Century marine biology lab and a 19th Century fort. All battered by hurricanes. All abandoned.
The most dominant landmark today is Fort Livingston - built on the western tip of Grand Terre and guarding the narrow Barataria Pass across from Grand Isle.
"It is a national historic landmark," said Jacques Berry with the Lt. Governor's Office. "It's one of the largest and most advanced of the coastal forts. It's also part of our state parks system."
Fort Livingston was built in the 1840s in the aftermath of British attacks on America and New Orleans in the War of 1812. This was extremely strategic from the military and from a commercial standpoint because Barataria Pass leads into Barataria Bay right up into the west bank and into the river.
The fort's massive brick walls were filled with shells from Native American middens. Steps are made of granite. The fort is named after Edward Livingston, who was a mayor of New York City, a U.S. senator from Louisiana and secretary of state under President Andrew Jackson.
Although troops and artillery were stationed there, the fort was never completed.
"Once it got through the funding struggles that it faced, we were into the Civil War and it was not really useful to either side," said Grand Isle resident Ambrose Besson. "Although the Confederates did occupy it briefly before New Orleans was captured by federal troops."
The fort's only battles have been with the Gulf of Mexico. Massive storms in 1893 and 1915 destroyed the part of the structure. For generations, the abandoned site has been a curiosity for residents of nearby Grand Isle.
"We take the horses up there on Grand Terre Island by the fort and ride the horses on the beach and all and camp out in the fort at night," Besson said.
The 81-year-old Besson remembers seeing some of the old cannons. The only remaining one is now on display on Grand Isle.
Today the fort is accessible only by boat. It's overgrown with vegetation.
"We don't do anything to encourage visitation right now," Berry said.
Sand and shallow water encroach into the once heavily armed fortress. You can wander through its dark chambers and imagine what it was like when Fort Livingston was part of a coastal defense system that protected Louisiana and the United States from invasion.
At this point, there are no plans by the state of Louisiana to develop or preserve Fort Livingston.