Ingenious Engineering, Military Marvels > Magazine > Attractions/Sights > Puerto Rico

Fuerte San Felipe del Morro, JCD
Ingenious Engineering, Military Marvels > Attractions/Sights > Puerto Rico
Stand on the upper level of El Morro Fortress, and you are standing on 18th century history, when brilliant engineers and a large workforce transformed San Juan’s military defenses into impregnable fortifications of the first order. Look out over the hornwork (so named because its shape resembles a bull’s horns) to the ocean and the bay and the city in the distance, and you understand why El Morro has been called one of the most dramatic citadels ever built.

Now descend the stairs, to the courtyard where troops once practiced their drills. Descend another set of stairs alongside a steep artillery ramp to the main battery, where the largest concentration of cannons is kept. Descend more stairs to a lower patio bordered by a series of vaulted rooms, once used for storage and preparing food. Look for an inconspicuous passageway and descend one last time to a small, dimly lit tower room with a domed ceiling. Touch the walls. They were built in 1539.

Imagine San Juan at that time, five centuries ago. A breezy islet on the north side of San Juan Bay, it boasted a healthier climate than the original inland settlement at Caparra, but its open location made defense a primary concern. The first fort was Casa Blanca, a small blockhouse built in 1523, followed by a permanent stronghold known as La Fortaleza, the Spanish word for “fortress.” Unfortunately, La Fortaleza’s inland location was less than ideal. “Only blind men could have chosen such a site for a fort,” complained historical chronicler Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo at the time. Never distinguished as a fortress, La Fortaleza went on to become the oldest governor’s residence still in use in the hemisphere. Fernández de Oviedo’s choice for a new site was the headland (morro) at the harbor entrance, a lofty site 100 feet above the water. In 1539 a small battery was constructed at the foot of the cliffs, where three cannons could take aim at the waterlines of enemy vessels.

Coveted as the Gateway to the New World, San Juan was under constant threat of invasion by European fleets. It became a military town. During the 1600s, soldiers and laborers (including convicts and slaves) strengthened the existing forts, built a wall around the town with gates that were locked at night, and constructed a small fort at San Cristóbal for defense against land attack.

When defenses were again overhauled a century later, San Cristóbal Fortress became the largest fortification ever built by the Spaniards in the Americas. From the fort’s second level, the sheer ingenuity of the engineering work is apparent. Its triangular “outworks” were made up of a maze of small forts, moats, tunnels, gunpowder magazines, trenches, and mining galleries extending upward to the main fort. If the enemy captured one section of the outworks, the defenders could effectively stop them by blowing up the nearest passageway. Eight large rooms housed up to 212 soldiers, and four immense cisterns stored more than 700,000 gallons of rainwater.

When the British fleet, commanded by Sir Ralph Abercromby, attempted to take San Juan in 1797, it was forced to sail away in defeat. Abercromby later wrote that the city could have resisted ten times more firepower. San Juan was, at long last, impregnable.
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