Most people come to Ft. Clinch State Park for the beach or the fishing. Set on Amelia Island at the northeast tip of Florida, the park faces the Atlanta Ocean on one side and the Amelia River on the other, with campgrounds on each side. A few hundred yards from the riverside campground sits Ft. Clinch, stationed directly across the river from Georgia. First planned in 1837, the fort was still under construction at the end of the Civil War. Because the Union Army wanted to secure a deep water port to bring in coal to supply their blockading fleet, they decided early on in the war to take Ft. Clinch. The Confederates got word of the plan and evacuated, so the fort essentially suffered no damage during the war and it remains in excellent condition.

The biggest battle occurred as federal gunboats chased the train that held soldiers and island residents fleeing the island. The boats chased the train for over a mile, eventually striking a flat car and killing two men. That forced the train to stop temporarily, and many of the civilians jumped from the train and hid in the bushes, including the founder of the railroad. Eventually, however, the train restarted and the soldiers escaped with their supplies.

That was about all the action the fort ever saw, although the nearby island town of Fernandina itself saw quite a bit more.

Today, the fort is furnished to depict the situation in about 1864, when the Union Army was still attempting to finish building it. There are some nice details, such as elaborate oil lamp rigs in the quarters of the officers and men.Ft. Clinch (photo by Kate Dolan)

Much of the island’s interesting history involves land just beyond the park’s borders in the town of what is now Fernandina Beach. On a bluff approximately one mile from Ft. Clinch, Spanish missionaries established a mission in 1602, and in 1693 they established a military post because of the deep water port and the location at the edge of their colonial boundary. The British gained control during the French and Indian War, but Spain reclaimed the island in 1783 after the end of the American Revolution.

The site became a haven for smugglers in 1806 when the Non-Importation Act banned the imports from Britain, the greatest supplier of goods to the U.S. It was easy to land contraband goods on the Spanish island and smuggle them across the river into Georgia.

Live oak at Ft Clinch State Park (photo by Kate Dolan)In 1811, the Spanish drew up the plans for the town of Fernandina based on their standard plat for colonial towns, which always included a public plaza. They built a fort in 1816, but the fort was captured numerous times, including by Scottish pirates and French privateers. By 1821, the island had become part of U.S. territory and the fort was abandoned. Even most of the town itself moved about a mile away to lower ground—at the urging of the railroad owner who wanted a location more favorable to loading cargo from the river.

Today, Fernandina Beach has two historical districts, one based on the site of the original Spanish town and the other based on the new railroad town. Both feature mostly buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, so while they are charming, the buildings give little clue to the varied activities that occurred on the site in earlier centuries.

Ft. Clinch State Park features beautiful, spacious campsites and some nice trails, particularly in the riverfront camping area. The wildlife tally included armadillos and deer, along with many deer. A return to camping with history at this park will be a priority for sure.


If you like stories about pirates, privateers, or others behaving selfishly on and off the high seas, you might enjoy my books Avery’s Treasure and Langley’s Choice.