CHARLESTON, S.C. — One of America's most famous historic sites has again made history as a record 328,000 visitors took the tour boat last year to Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor to see where the Civil War began.
Spurred in part by the observance of the 150th anniversary of the war, the trend continues this year.
Visitation at Fort Sumter was up another 11 percent during the first three months of this year as compared to the record-setting mark in 2011, said Dawn Davis, the chief ranger of the U.S. Park Service Fort Sumter National Monument which includes Sumter, Fort Moultrie on Sullivans Island and the Charles Pinckney Historic Site in nearby Mount Pleasant.
Confederate guns surrounding Fort Sumter opened fired on the fort in April 1861 to plunge the nation into its bloodiest conflict.
When the 150th anniversary of the opening of the war was marked a year ago with somber music, a beam of light shining heavenward from the fort and cannon booming around the harbor, officials expected a spike in visitors. But Davis wasn't expecting this.
"It did indeed exceed my expectations. I expected it last April and even last May. But for it to continue and continue all winter and the first three months of this year..."
She credits the increase not only to Civil War buffs visiting.
"I think it's other folks as well. I've seen more interest with teachers and schools and children in general, which is a good thing," she said. The Civil War Trust holds a teacher workshop in Charleston this summer where teachers from around the nation will have a chance to visit the fort.
Davis said Sumter generally draws around 200,000 visitors a year. The only year it surpassed 300,000 was in 2002, when visitation edged above that mark following the 9-11 terror attacks.
"A lot of people were staying closer to home and doing vacations to see places of historic significance," she said. "But after that, visitation dropped back down to the 200,000 range."
Easter time is usually the busiest time of year at Fort Sumter, she said.
On Friday, both Civil War buffs and more casual visitors were in the Fort Sumter tour boat facility on the Cooper River waiting to take the ferry to the fort.
Durell Goode of Atlanta, a disabled veteran, said he has wanted to come to the fort and also planned to see the Morris Island Lighthouse, near where the black 54th Massachusetts Union regiment attacked Confederate Battery Wagner on Charleston Harbor in a charge commemorated in the 1989 movie "Glory."
Goode said the film sparked his interest in the war
Mark Cross of Fairfax, Va., was visiting with his wife Jan. Their daughter moved to Charleston last year and until this week "all I had seen of Charleston was through the window of a Penske moving van," he said.
Although he lives in an area of northern Virginia rich in Civil War history, Cross isn't an enthusiast. Indeed, the visit to Sumter came on the last day of his week-long stay, and he thought it might be a good way to spend an overcast day.
On the Internet:
Fort Sumter National Monument : http://www.nps.gov/fosu/index.htm