🚨As of September 2023, “The replica 1802 fort at Fort Massac State Park remains closed pending structural rehabilitation.”, per the Illinois Government website. Best to check the Illinois.gov website for updates before visiting.🚨
Located right next to the mighty Ohio River, in Metropolis, Illinois, sits historic Fort Massac. One of eleven forts located within the state of Illinois, the original fort was built 266 years ago by the French. Fully abandoned by 1814, it was reconstructed years later, and every fall volunteers reenact the lives of the average 1800s fort resident, making for a wonderful educational experience. Named Illinois’ first State Park in 1908, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.
Usually open year-round, the park itself is listed as “open 24 hours”, however – I believe the hours are closer to 6am (dawn) to 10pm. The visitors center is open daily from 9am to 4:30pm, and includes a museum with Native American artifacts, mannequins wearing 17th-century period clothing, and historical exhibits of the fort. It’s free to enter both the park and the visitors center. Pets are allowed (leashed only), but they are not allowed inside the visitors center.
Originally named “Fort de L’Ascension”, it was later renamed after French Navel minister Claude Louis d’Espinchal, marquis de Massiac. Over its lifespan, numerous major historical events have taken place, like when the famous Lewis & Clark Expedition made a pitstop in the fall of 1803, recruiting two volunteers to join them. Or when Vice President Aaron Burr and General James Wilkinson came and held discussions in 1805. In fact, Fort Massac has been connected to several events related to the Burr Conspiracy.
As mentioned, it is a replica. The original fort was built in 1757 by the French during the French and Indian War, then subsequently abandoned in 1763, at the end of the war. Afterwards, Chickasaw Native Americans burnt it to the ground. In 1794, the George Washington ordered that the fort be rebuilt, but it was again damaged in 1812 by an earthquake. After being repaired just in time for the War of 1812, it was, yet again, abandoned in 1814, and quickly dismantled by locals who wanted the wood for timber. Very little of the 1794 fort remained, so in 2002, a detailed replication of the original 1812 fort was built and is what stands today.
While the fort today is sadly not the original structure, it’s still very cool and an excellent educational tool. During one weekend every October, the city of Metropolis puts on a “Fort Massac Encampment”, where volunteers reenact life at Fort Massac during the 17th century. The 2023 event will be held on October 21st and 22nd (pending the fort reopening after its structural rehabilitation).
There’s also an “Education Day” for students every October. Per the city’s website, “Step into the past and witness history come to life right before your eyes... Our all-star team of volunteer re-enactors will be on hand to showcase demonstrations and presentations that will make history class the highlight of your school year!” This years student event will be held October 19th, 2023 (again… pending the structural rehabilitation).
Overall, if you’re ever in the Southern Illinois (The Hidden Treasures of Southern Illinois.) or Paducah, Kentucky area, I highly suggest planning an afternoon adventure to Fort Massac State Park. While small, it’s still a wonderful and educational day-outing for kids and adults alike. All in all, it will probably take 1-2 hours to explore. Then once you’re done exploring the fort, you can hop on over to Paducah and enjoy some food and shopping!