Location: Waimea, Kaua’i, Hawai’i, United States
Date of visit: December 14, 2015
The Russian Fort Elisabeth State Historical Park contains the 19th century ruins of a defensive fort built in an attempt to protect Russian shipping interests and provide a provisioning port in the Pacific Ocean. Russia built two additional strongholds on the island: Fort Alexander, identified and excavated in the 1970’s, and Fort Barclay, no remains extant. All three forts were built under the supervision of Russian-American agent Georg Anton Schaeffer through a special agreement with Kaua’i King Kaumuali’i. The Russian goals were to first establish a monopoly on the sandalwood trade in the Pacific then secondly attempt to annex the Hawai’ian Islands. Schaeffer was instructed to build three forts on Kaua’i, then a guard station on Oa’hu. He started all four projects but never saw any to completion. The Americans eventually grew suspicious of the Russian building initiatives and chased Schaeffer off the islands. Fort Elisabeth was built in 1815 and used by Russia through 1817. At this point, the Russians were ejected from the fort and it was adapted for use by Hawai’ian monarchs. The monarchy abandoned the site in 1864 and it was allowed to slowly crumble away.
The fort, now a National Historic Landmark, has a strategic location on a bluff with panoramic views of the Pacific, the town of Waimea, and the mouth of the Waimea River. Its location adjacent to Waimea Bay allowed for safe anchorage for cargo and trade ships. The walls and most of the 8 identified structures were built with locally sourced basalt boulders. The star-shaped battlements, common in 19th century defensive structures, faced the sea view and hosted cannon. The land-ward side was just a simple semi-circular wall since the Russians did not expect any threats from this side of the fort.
A descriptive panel by the parking lot provides good information about the fort’s history and the relevant people. It seems like there used to be descriptive markers around the site but these are no longer present. There is a nice pathway around exterior of the walls and you can meander through the gate to explore the interior. Only a few building foundations and trackways remain, such as the barracks which now appear as a large mound. The barracks was the largest building in the fort, measuring 80 x 30 feet and built on top of a stone platform. The interior offers an opportunity to play “find the foundation” and try to identify hand-laid versus natural stones. There are a few humps-and-bumps to clamber around, which should provide some amusement to any kiddos in your group.
Copious warning signs advise on the unstable nature of the walls and stress that climbing is prohibited. Like most attractions in Hawai’i sporting a ‘Danger!’ sign, I’m sure this doesn’t discourage most people from scrambling onto the walls. The sandy soil does host a few biting red ants so be on the look-out if you’re wearing the typical Hawai’ian footwear of flip-flops or sandals. There are shaded picnic benches by the parking area and you can walk or drive to the edge of the bluff for a sea view. While the site has some interesting history with implications grander than the fort’s ruined remains, the views are definitely worth a look. Stop by just before sunset for warm colors and ocean breezes, and get a little dose of history while you’re there.