Castillo de San Marcos is a fort in St. Augustine, Florida that was originally built as a defense against pirates. The oldest fort in the lower 48 states to be built out of masonry, it was started in 1672 when Florida still belonged to Spain. In 1763, Florida became part of the British Empire and the fort was known for a while as Fort St. Mark. When Florida was returned to Spain in 1783, it was again called Castillo de San Marcos until the United States came into being and renamed it Fort Marion. It kept this name until 1942 when the original name was again resumed. Though Castillo de San Marcos was decommissioned as a fort in 1933, it’s now a part of the U.S. National Park Service, which also includes Jacksonville's Kingsley Plantation.
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The fort stands on 20.48 acres at the edge of Matanzas Bay. It's a distinctive, somewhat star-shaped fort that was built out of coquina stone that was brought from Anastasia Island in the bay. Coquina stone is a type of limestone made from millions of prehistoric shells. The fort, built by Native Americans and workers from Cuba, took 23 years to build. It has four bastions and is surrounded by a moat that could be flooded with seawater from the bay. The fort was renovated in 1738, when vaulted ceilings were added to the rooms to replace the old wooden ceilings. To do this, the rooms themselves had to be made deeper by about seven feet.
The fort was the site of several battles and skirmishes between Spain, Britain and the United States. It even featured in the Civil War where it was used largely as a military prison. The fort was also used to imprison native Americans, including Oceola, the chief of the Seminoles. One of the fort’s biggest attractions is the cell from which Coacoochee, a Seminole warrior, escaped with some followers on November 19, 1837.
Castillo de San Marcos is open every day except Christmas. It’s open from 8:45 in the morning to 5:15 in the evening. The park around it is closed from midnight until 5:30 in the morning. Since the number of visitors is highest in the summer, the best bet for a tourist is to come during the fall months until around the holiday season. The parking lot, restrooms and the fort’s lower level are accessible by wheelchair, but the visitor will have to climb the stairs to reach the upper decks where the guns were kept. While pets aren’t allowed inside the fort proper, they’re allowed in the park as long as they’re on a leash. A good place to stay during a visit would be the nearby Castle Garden Bed and Breakfast. Reservations are easier to get during the fall season.