Sandbar at Fort Sumter

A sandbar island alongside Fort Sumter has been used by boaters to visit the site. The National Park Service just put that off limits. File/Matthew Fortner/Staff

You can't go to Fort Sumter for free anymore, the National Park Service has decided.

Rangers have put off limits access from the sandbar beach between the fort and James Island, popularly known as Pine Island, and are turning away people who attempt to climb the riprap to venture into the landmark tourist attraction.

Pine Island itself, one of the area's weekend-party boater sandbars,  could eventually be closed off, as well.

The Sumter closing pulls the anchor on one of the local secrets among the Charleston boating community: that the $23 fee charged by Fort Sumter Tours ferries didn't pay for admission, just the ride. The fort has been free to enter.

But federal managers say they have had enough of people partying at a historic site where alcohol isn't allowed. They need to step up security, more carefully manage erosion and artifact looting around the deteriorating, nearly 200-year-old historic landmark.

The fort — the target of the bombardment that ignited the Civil War — is one of the most sought-after destinations among history buffs and Charleston tourists. It attracts more than 800,000 people per year, along with companion sites Fort Moultrie and the Charles Pinckney National Historic Site.

"The current use of the beach includes people consuming alcohol and 'partying' rather than coming to the fort for an historical visit," said Park Superintendent J. Tracy Stakely in a letter announcing the closure. "Security in the era of the active shooter requires a change from previous times."

The move outraged local captain Chris Rabens, of Charlestown Charters, who watched rangers stop his customers after he has dropped them off for years at the beach to see the fort.

"They're giving Spiritline Cruises (which runs Fort Sumter Tours) a monopoly. It hurts my business. I think it's an injustice. I think it's unfair," Rabens said. 

In the letter, Stakely also notes:

  • The fort can go over capacity with unregulated visitors during high tourism times.
  • The fort is an archaeological site and private boat visitors "have been observed taking 'souvenirs' from areas where artifacts are present."
  • The numbers of people coming from the beach are eroding grass areas around the fort.
  • Rehabilitation of the fort's breakwater will be taking place in the next few years in the same area where people come up from the beach.

Among other problems, Stakely said a boat anchored just offshore pulled up the fort's electric line along with the anchor, "causing significant infrastructure problems and cost for us."

So far, no violators have been fined, he said. The service has set up signs, handed out brochures and talked with people who try to come up from the sandbar.

The park service doesn't own the entire sandbar. The S.C. Department of Natural Resources is in the process of purchasing much of it from a private owner.

"Currently, boats can still come to the sandbar, they just can't access our facilities," Stakely said. "However, we have had very preliminary discussions (with DNR) about potential closure of it in the future, as they have concerns as well on the increased usage and impacts on their property."

DNR officials did not immediately respond when asked for comment.

It's not well-known that federal regulations give the Department of the Interior the right to limit commercial activities to exclusive vendors at national parks and other sites. Maybe the best regional examples are park lodges such as LeConte Lodge in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is run by Stokely Hospitality Enterprises.

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Reach Bo Petersen at @bopete on Twitter or 843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.

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