Until help arrived, two men labored alone to reclaim historic site
Robert Bear and Ralph Stenzel began shoveling sand out of the batteries at Fort Travis in 2015 to reclaim the overgrown and almost forgotten historic site on Bolivar Peninsula.
“It needed TLC,” Stenzel said.
The four batteries at the fort were overgrown and in rough shape, the men said. So, they went to the site with shovels, trimmers and a wheelbarrow.
The fort is a Galveston County park that crews kept mowed, but the old batteries were in disrepair. The canopy on one had collapsed. The drains were blocked. Raccoons, skunks, snakes and cactus took over the structures. Graffiti took over interior walls.
Stenzel, who is chairman of the Galveston County Historical Commission and is a former mayor of Santa Fe, approached county officials for some help in restoring the site.
When Galveston County crews showed up to help with the cleanup, the herculean task of cleaning up the old U.S. Army fort became more possible, Stenzel said.
The heavy equipment with front loaders made a world of difference when it came to moving sand that Hurricane Ike, which struck in September 2008, and other storms forced in the batteries.
“They could do more in one bucket load than we could all day,” Bear said. “We would have still been there shoveling sand.”
Since the project began, county workers have sealed cracks in the concrete and made the drains operational.
Fort Travis was a coastal artillery fort, like Fort San Jacinto and Fort Crockett on Galveston Island. The army built the fort in 1898 with two batteries to protect the Galveston harbor and the channel during the Spanish-American War.
The army built another battery in 1922 with two guns and another battery in 1943, just as World War II was near its end. The army never installed guns at the last battery, and the fort became a reservation that was sold to private companies.
In 1973, the Galveston County Commissioners Court acquired the site for a public park.
Both Bear and Stenzel continue to restore the batteries at the fort and research history and funding possibilities.
The 40 or so metal doors in the batteries were rusted. Bear is repairing them one at a time. First, he gets the hinges working again. Then, he paints them with a coating that neutralizes rust, then on another day he paints them with primer and on a third day with paint.
“That’s three trips,” Bear said. “It’s very time consuming.”
The county keeps the batteries locked and has posted signs warning visitors to stay out of the still dangerous buildings. Vandalism is another problem, so for now, the interiors are off limits to the public.
“We hope at times to open the batteries,” Stenzel said.
The men are trying to restore the fort to what it looked like when it was operational.
“The outpouring and enthusiasm has really spread,” Stenzel said. “When Robert and I were working at cleaning it up, we had so many people stop by and want to know the history, we couldn’t work.”