As a kid on car trips coming home to Dundalk from Ocean City vacations or soccer games, Valerie Brown always looked out at the small, uninhabited island just off the Key Bridge to try to spot the rats.

Rumor had it that Fort Carroll was infested and, if you looked hard enough, the manmade island slowly moved from the pure force of so many rodents. The lore didn’t stop there at a time before the internet and Google.

“I remember also hearing that it was a jail and that it was haunted and if you drove by at night you’d look to see if there were ghosts,” Brown said.

In actuality, there’s not much at Fort Carroll except what remains of a granite-and-brick sea fort, a wooden lighthouse and overgrown plants. For over 100 years, Fort Carroll has remained an abandoned but historic structure in the Patapsco River southeast of the Francis Scott Key Bridge. Though several development plans have been introduced over the years, nothing has come through and the island’s presence has been left to history, legend and wonder.

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Fort Carroll was built in the late 1840s from a design attributed to Robert E. Lee. (Eric Thompson / For The Baltimore Banner)

Brown is one of the many people who has wondered about Fort Carroll over the years. The collapse of the Key Bridge and attention on the Patapsco reignited interest about whatever happened with the nearby artificial island.

Listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2015, Fort Carroll was built in the late 1840s from a design attributed to Robert E. Lee. It is named for Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, and was meant to be an important line of defense for Baltimore, in addition to nearby Fort McHenry.

The fort has been privately owned since the late 1950s, when a Baltimore lawyer purchased it with a vision to put a casino on it. But the island would never see any slot machines. Land records today link the fort to a group of owners, including Beverly Eisenberg, who previously told the Baltimore Sun her grandfather was the original purchaser. And there seem to be efforts to find a purpose for the hexagonal island, though no one was ready to reveal any details.

“The owners of Fort Carroll are currently engaged in third-party discussions regarding the future of the Fort. These discussions are confidential and due to this, we are unable to reveal the content at this time,” Eisenberg said in an email.

Bill Struever, CEO and managing partner at Cross Street Partners, was once one of the people who tried for development at the fort. Struever and his company find satisfaction in giving old buildings new uses, and he thinks Fort Carroll is a “fun and most intriguing” development possibility and has always admired the masonry. His company had a lease with an option to buy the fort over 20 years ago and considered turning it into a conference center or an environmental hub run by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, he said.

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Struever can’t remember how far along they got with the plans, but the task turned out to be too much of an undertaking, mentioning bird nesting as one challenge and limitation to what’s possible.

He visited the fort many times because of his development interest. Others have been known to scratch that itch for adventure and answers by trespassing on the island.

Scott Stallings, who grew up in Rockview Beach in Anne Arundel County, and his friends in the 1980s would take a 12-foot boat to Fort Carroll to explore. Stallings and his friends walked across metal beams to get to the gates and slide their then skinny teenage bodies through. They ignored the sign about a guard dog.

Their teenage foolery was driven by a myth about tunnels that connected Fort Carroll to Fort Armistead, a former military fort in Hawkins Point. They searched and searched but never found them. Nonetheless, he was amused by the entryways and the cannon replica they found in a storage room. The original design of the fort laid out 225 cannons on three levels, according to documents submitted by the Maryland Historical Trust to the National Register of Historic Places.

At the time, the center of the island was overgrown with at least 6 feet of grass, he said. It was too much to bear for a gang of boys often in shorts and T-shirts. Stallings is also terrified of snakes.

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“I was adventurous, but I wasn’t nuts,” Stallings said.

They often found themselves at the wooden lighthouse, which Stallings recalls being carved with names from top to bottom. One dated to at least 1920, he said. The lighthouse was built in 1853 and stopped operating before 1945, according to the Maryland Historical Trust.

Fort Carroll has been privately owned since the late 1950s. (Eric Thompson / For The Baltimore Banner)

Positioned above the water, Stallings and his friends would often look at the Key Bridge. After hearing about the collapse of the bridge, Stallings said: “I hadn’t felt that way since 9/11.″ He thinks that today the fort could be turned into a bed and breakfast because it’s a “hospitable place.”

Not all admirers of the fort took their chances getting on it, though.

Rachel Novak never set foot on Fort Carroll, but she got close enough to let her childhood wonder do the wandering. She and her dad entered Maryland rockfish fishing tournaments, and one of his go-to spots was by the fort. Novak was always fascinated by the structure in the middle of the water often surrounded by monarch butterflies and white flocks of birds as if it “belonged to nature.”

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“It’s always had a sense of wonder like things are living there and thriving there, but there’s no threat,” Novak said, adding that it seems the fort has found a purpose opposite of war — peace.

Novak could see the island become a memorial for the Francis Scott Key Bridge or a nature reserve.

“I love that it’s been preserved in the middle of the water as an island,” she said. She hopes it doesn’t become an attraction just to make money.

Jasmine Vaughn-Hall is a neighborhood and community reporter at the Baltimore Banner, covering the people, challenges, and solutions within West Baltimore. Have a tip about something happening in your community? Taco recommendations? Call or text Jasmine at 443-608-8983.

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