The gates to a 280-year-old fort in Port Royal are opening to the public, and its grounds are being opened by archaeologists seeking artifacts.
The S.C. Department of Natural Resources Heritage Trust has set up for a month of excavation, which would have started Monday if not for heavy rains.
Digging will focus on the fort, which was completed in 1734, and two sites where 19th-century buildings may have been located.
Fort Frederick began as a British stronghold, built on the Beaufort River to protect the area from attacks by American Indians and by Spaniards from St. Augustine, Fla. It was used as a military base for less than two decades, was deserted by 1758 and replaced by Fort Lyttleton, a British tabby fort upriver on Spanish Point.
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The fort property was subsequently part of the Smith Plantation, or the Old Fort Plantation. The plantation was used by the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, a unit of former slaves, during the Civil War. Camp Saxton, now part of Beaufort Naval Hospital property, was the site of Emancipation Proclamation ceremonies Jan. 1, 1863.
The 3-acre fort site is part of 127 acres of riverfront the Navy bought in 1945 to build Naval Hospital Beaufort. The fort section was donated to the state as part of the National Park Service's Federal-Lands-to-Parks Program in 1997.
The dig is one step in a larger project, DNR archaeologist Sean Taylor said. A report will be compiled and used to create informational materials and kiosks.
He said he hopes to learn more about features of the fort, such as the barracks, powder magazine, cannon mounts and a possible brick floor in one section. He also hopes to find out more about the original structure and tabby walls, including whether some of the walls have been partially covered by land.
Opening the site has been a long-standing goal of Port Royal officials.
"It's wonderful to have this type of history, but when it's behind a fence, then it's difficult to expose people to it," town manager Van Willis said.
Beaufort tabby expert Colin Brooker has been contracted to preserve the fort's crumbling tabby walls, and crews have begun covering fragile areas with fresh tabby.
Signs will warn visitors to stay off the fort walls, and bollards, short vertical posts, will likely be installed to make sure vehicles cannot drive into the fort.
The state, county and town are also working on a plan to relocate and install the aging boat landing beside the fort site. Preliminary plans are to move it south by more than 100 feet, giving vehicles and boats room to maneuver without endangering the fragile tabby ruins, Taylor said.
Because of erosion, part of the fort is under the Beaufort River. Taylor said plans are to add a marker to pinpoint the underwater ruins and to warn boaters of obstacles.
Public access to the site has been restricted since Sept. 11, 2001, although tours could be arranged through the Naval Hospital and DNR. Taylor said the public can now visit the site on Fridays through Feb. 6.
If you go
The public can visit the Fort Frederick site Fridays through Feb. 6. Guided tours will be at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., and visitors will learn about the excavation, site history and plans. Access is via Old Fort Road, off Old Shell Road. For information or to arrange a large group visit, contact Meg Gaillard, S.C. Department of Natural Resources Heritage Trust archaeologist, 803-734-0658.