Friday, May 15, 2009


When I signed up for the Ghost Tour of St. Augustine I was thinking of research showing that fear helps us remember an experience. Little did I know that the somewhat grisly and rather silly tour would be neither the scariest nor the most memorable event of the day.

After checking into the pirate themed hostel called Pirate Haus, we set off for the Castillo de San Marco.
St. Augustine, which was sacked by pirates many times, has many pirate themed attractions.

The Spanish Queen ordered Castillo de San Marco constructed after the English pirate Robert Searle battered St. Augustine in 1668.

The fort is built out of a rather unusual local rock known as coquina (Spanish for little shell). The rock, shown below has both inconvenient and useful properties.

It is very porous and when first mined it is soft and wet. It has to dry for several years before it can be used. The fort walls have to be very thick 9-14 feet. Because the rock is so porous cannonballs fired at it crush the rock like styrofoam. Whereas granite cracks and crumbles under cannon fire, coquina absorbs the shock.

The thick walls also muffle sound very well, which played a role in our scary story.
The soldiers at the fort could fire cannonballs back at ships. And they had another trick up their sleeves. We arrived just in time to see a living history reenactment of firing a cannon.
Our ghost tour guide (take with grain of salt, therefore) said that the last time they shot a metal ball it landed across Matanzas Bay in someone's pool. Evelyn asked one of the reenactors why they now shoot white bread out of the cannon and he did say, "because a metal ball would hit the houses over there."

So here is the fortress's secret weapon.

No, it isn't a 50-lb bowling ball.

It is a "hot shot". At least it will be after it rolls through the furnace. The furnace has four sets of slanting rails and depressions in the rock at the bottom.

It worked, as near as we could figure, like those bagel toasters they have at restaurants, where the bagel rides a conveyer belt past heating elements and comes out toasted.
You put the cannonball on the rails at the top (which look rather like the bowling ball return rails at the bowling alley), it rolls through the furnace, over a very hot fire, and stops in the depresson, all ready to be picked up with some tongs and shot at a pirate ship.

We were enjoying ourselves so much we didn't realize the time. There was so much to see, what with the barracks beds that looked so much like our beds at the Pirate Haus, except that two men slept in each bunk, and there was a place to stand 4 muskets and hang 4 coats.
Also, at the Pirate Haus, there are pirates on the walls.

At the fort the soldiers amused themselves by drawing ships and carving the alphabet on the walls. Can you make out the alphabet below? It was dim in the room, but the C at left is fairly clear. Next to it is a backwards B. I guess they needed the practice.

We are told by a docent that they are closing soon. Under Clementine's insistence (she's been exploring a little on her own), we go into one last room.

It is a prison.

But it turns out to have another room beyond, and then another. This room, we read, was the powder magazine. It was walled up for 100 years and when they re-opened it they found human bones inside. We get to hear a quite fanciful story about how they got there on our ghost tour. One commander of the fort, they say, was a jealous husband.

Finally, there is a tiny door you have to crawl through into a low room with an arched ceiling. It is so dim my photos don't come out.

It is very stuffy in there. I start to try to read our self-guided walking tour, but the room has a suffocating feeling. "Let's get out of here," Evelyn says. My mom agrees. We crawl out, go past the powder magazine, and we hear Clem shout, "They locked us in! For real! We're locked in!"

I get out and sure enough, the doors to the courtyard are locked. We are trapped. I try a shutter over the window. It opens, but the window has bars. The room was used as a prison, after all.

Then I see a park ranger. I wave.
"Didn't you hear me shout we were closing?" he says.
We didn't hear a thing.
I am very glad that it was so stuffy and I didn't read the guided tour out loud. What if the ranger had left by then?

We weren't in there but a few seconds, but the memory will last a lifetime.


Kat said...

Wow...that could have really been an exciting field trip. So glad you got out. :) I want to see the quilt square you do for that day.

AM said...

Wow - what a great opportunity to work on some Latin noun declensions!

Susan said...

Kat, me too! That would have been an unpleasant night.

AM, rats! Now I feel we really missed out.

We found out the true story behind the human remains: a cannon accident killed several men and wounded others. The killed were buried, but the amputated limbs were thrown in the powder magazine which was being used as a trash heap.

Kristin said...

Wow a well documented post and a thriller! They really must do a walk-through the whole place before they close it, don't ya think? Great Adventure! I thought only foreign travel was exciting. Keep the tales coming...

Stefaneener said...

: ) That's wonderful. How nice to have a little real scare (instead of a big bad real scare).