CLEARWATER – Fort De Soto’s batteries and military post have long been known for their historical significance. Now, they have the distinction of being Pinellas County’s first landmark and landmark site.
Commissioners unanimously approved the new designation May 20.
According to the county’s land development code, which was amended in 2012, a landmark is an archaeological or historical site or structure as designated by specific criteria. The landmark designation may include the location of a significant archaeological feature or historic event. A landmark site is the land on which a landmark and its related structures are located.
Before the decision on the landmark designation, commissioners unanimously approved a change in the land development code that required an archaeological resource be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The same requirement did not exist for other historic or cultural resources.
With removal of the requirement to be listed on the National Register, commissioners were free to approve the county’s first landmark and landmark site.
Fort De Soto Park Supervisor Jim Wilson pointed out that the Fort De Soto batteries had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977, but the military post had not been included.
“This designation includes the whole installation,” he said.
The area within the designation is about 35 acres within the more than 1,000 acres that make up Fort De Soto Park. The history goes back to the 1800s.
“In fact, the value of establishing batteries and a military post at this strategic location (Mullet Key and Egmont Key) at the entry to Tampa Bay was clearly recognized by the U.S. Military as early as 1840s,” said a memo from staff.
Construction of the facilities began in the 1890s and continued into the 1900s, “ultimately resulting in a complete coastal defense artillery complex with all the concomitant support housing and infrastructure,” the memo said.
The remaining structures stand as an example of the type of military defense construction typical of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They include two batteries - the Laidley, which has been partially restored, and the Bigelow, which is mostly deteriorated and partially submerged at high tide.
The 12-inch mortar battery was named Battery Laidley in honor of Col. Theodore T. S. Laidley who fought in the war with Mexico as well as the Civil War and died in Palatka, Florida. The 3-inch gun battery became Battery Bigelow in honor of 1st Lt. Aaron Bigelow of the 21st U.S. Infantry, killed at the battle of Lundy’s Lane, Ontario, during the War of 1812.
Visitors to Fort De Soto Park can tour Battery Laidley and the last four 12-inch M 1890-MI mortars remaining in North America. According to a history about the park, the only others remaining in the world are in the Philippines.
The newly designated landmark site also contains remnant foundations and evidence of the original barracks, storehouses, bakery, hospital, quartermaster storehouse, recreation area, guardhouse, pathways, civilian quarters and other structures.