On Friday, people in at least four cities could see smoke billowing from Castle Pinckney, the abandoned circular brick fort in the middle of Charleston Harbor.

The plumes won't signal an attack or a re-enactment, but instead could mark a new push to preserve a historic site that predates Fort Sumter.

The fort -- visible from Charleston, Mount Pleasant, Sullivan's Island and James Island -- has become so overgrown with brush and small trees that many people might not even know there's something manmade on the small island.

On Friday, crews with the state Department of Natural Resources and students with Clemson University and the College of Charleston will trim that growth and create a bonfire around 9 a.m.

The State Ports Authority, which owns Castle Pinckney, figures the clearing work will serve two purposes.

First, it will let Clemson and College of Charleston preservation students get better access to the fort for upcoming laser scans, a sort of advanced technology that can document the fort's condition, SPA spokesman Byron Miller said.

Second, clearing the brush also will help the bird populations that nest on the island. That's why the DNR has agreed to help.

It's unclear how impressive a sight the smoke will be. "The material is pretty green and is pretty soaked in pelican poop," Miller said.

Students with the joint Clemson and College of Charleston historic preservation program will return to the island later this month with a federal team capable of making laser scans of the structure, said Ashley Wilson, an assistant professor with the program.

Those scans will help document the fort in detail for the Historic American Buildings Survey.

"This is the same equipment they used when they documented the Statue of Liberty," she said. "It's used on things that are difficult to measure."

State Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, said the scans will be a good step toward creating a long-term preservation plan.

Ultimately, Limehouse said he would like to see some organization take over the fort and allow public access. "I'm for active parks," he said. "I don't believe preserving and protecting things and then putting chains around them so the public can't enjoy them."

Miller said the authority also would like to find a more appropriate long-term owner. "We're going to be requesting and asking and seeking and encouraging the National Park Service to take it over," he said.

Of course, whoever assumes control of the fort also could inherit a massive renovation bill to make the site stable for visitors.

"It's like be careful what you ask for," Limehouse said, "you might get it."

A brief history

Completed in 1809, Castle Pinckney saw little action during the War of 1812 and the Nullification Crisis in 1832. But at the dawn of the Civil War, 150 Confederate forces seized Castle Pinckney without a fight, making it -- not Fort Sumter -- the first Union fortification lost.

In 1861 the Confederacy briefly used it as a prison for Union soldiers captured at the Battle of First Manassas. It then reverted to use as a fort for the remainder of the war.

In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt transferred the property to the National Park Service under the Secretary of the Interior. It was transferred to the State Ports Authority in the 1950s, after the Park Service had acquired Fort Sumter from the military.

The fort currently is off limits to the public.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.