BACKSTORY (May 1956–PRESENT): From the 1956 park brochure: “At the far end of Wilderness Road stands Fort Wilderness—the outpost of civilization. The time is the War of 1812…the United States flag has only 15 stars. Within the gates there is a Canteen and Trading Post—stocked with pelts, guns, knives, and Indian craft. In the Regimental Hdqrs., Davy Crockett and George Russel, U.S. Army Scouts, can be seen reporting to Maj. General Andrew Jackson during the Cherokee Indian Campaign. From the parapets and block houses can be seen the vast untamed American wilderness…the deer, moose, bear and wildlife of the primitive forest. Beyond the stockade are tepees…hostile Indians on the warpath. A settler’s cabin burns in the distance…mute evidence of a treacherous attack.”
With the “opening” of Tom Sawyer’s Island, rafts provided transportation from a dock near the Chicken Plantation restaurant to the old “Tom’s Landing” location between the island’s grist mill and fishing pier. Fort Wilderness was one of the original features of Tom Sawyer Island and was built from actual logs. Due to improper maintenance over the years and the fact that termites love wood, the Fort eventually became a casualty. In January 2001, a 6-year-old girl lost most of a finger when she slipped while playing with one of the toy rifles in the rifle roost. The rife roost was boarded up. Fort Wilderness stayed open, but it was becoming evident that Tom Sawyer Island needed some care. In 2003, Tom Sawyer Island received a rehab to improve it and make it safer. Sadly, Fort Wilderness was closed and never reopened, only to be used by performers of Fantasmic! as a costuming area. The walls were reinforced with wooden framing beams within the fort to help it keep standing. Finally, the original Fort was torn down in 2007 and has been rebuilt, albeit with a somewhat different design. It is still closed to the public, and most likely will continue to be a facility for cast members and storage.
Here is the text from the original 1957 Tom Sawyer Island brochure:
…The last outpost of civilization at the end of Wilderness Trail. Inside the stockade the Canteen and Trading Post is stocked with pelts, guns, knives, and Indian craft. In the Regimental Hdqrs., Davy Crockett and George Russel, U.S. Army Scouts, are reporting to Maj. General Andrew Jackson during the Cherokee Indian Campaign in 1813. The blockhouses are ready with rifles…Beyond the stockade are tepees…hostile Indians on the warpath. A settler’s cabin burns furiously in the distance…mute evidence of a treacherous attack. There is a secret escape tunnel to Wilderness Landing!
The secret tunnel from inside Fort Wilderness took guests to a hard-to-see crack in the rocks down by the water. The entrance was inside the fort behind a storage door on the right hand side towards the back. By the early 70’s, the sign was gone and the door closed but not locked, which made it more secret and way cooler for us kids. The cave entrance was also eventually sealed up. Later, they reopened the tunnel and enlarged the cave opening, but the tunnel was rerouted to the side of the fort instead of going up into the fort. When they reopened the tunnel with the new exit, it also had an enlarged opening down by the river so that adults could easily enter. This also revealed the opening to anyone walking by. There were stairs at the doorway shown in the photo below that led down into the secret tunnel. In the old days, the openings like you see here were much smaller and we used to yell at people walking along the water but they never could see us. The cave opening was very well concealed and was too narrow for most adults when originally created. Here my kids are listening to my old stories about the secret tunnel and they wished that it had never changed. You can see the back side of the fort where the reopened portion of the tunnel is today. If you go into the reopened part of the tunnel (if it’s still open, I haven’t been there since the fort was rebuilt) when you get to the end closer to the fort, the tunnel takes a hard right back outside and if you look left you can see the patch where the old tunnel was sealed up.