San Juan National Historic Site celebrates its 60th birthday today, February 14. This remarkable park, America's only national park in Puerto Rico, preserves some of the finest Spanish Colonial-era coastal forts left in the Caribbean. Originally built to guard the new Spanish colony of San Juan from attacks by the native Taino and Caribe, the forts have survived to this day as a United Nations World Heritage Site and a unique part of our park system.
Fort San Felipe del Morro, the oldest fortification in the park, has been standing watch at the entrance to San Juan harbor since construction began in 1539. The fort underwent nearly continuous improvement and renovation during the 400 years that varying world powers garrisoned troops there. With walls that are nearly 20 feet thick, a lighthouse, six levels, turrets (garitas), and a reported area of over 70 acres during its heyday, the structure was an imposing force in the West Indies. Thanks to its gargantuan proportions, the Spaniards did not have to build another fortification (or castillo) to protect San Juan for over a hundred years.
El Morro has flown several flags – Spanish, English, and American – but only once did invading forces successfully bring it to its knees. English forces under the command of Sir George Clifford, Third Earl of Cumberland, took the fort on July 1, 1598, but only after coming across the island and bypassing the fort and San Juan's harbor. Ironically, an outbreak of dysentery forced the British to abandon the fort and relinquish control of Puerto Rico to the Spanish.
After the ouster of the Earl of Cumberland's forces, the Spanish built a second fort on San Juan Bay. Completed in 1610, San Juan de la Cruz (or El Cañuelo) is situated directly across the harbor from El Morro and is the smallest of the three forts in the park. El Cañuelo played an especially important role during the 1625 Dutch invasion of Puerto Rico when El Cañuelo and El Morro wreaked havoc on the Dutch fleet by catching it in a crossfire at the San Juan harbor entrance.
After having been invaded several times by land and sea, the Spanish rulers finally turned their attention to land protection for their colonial capital in the late 1700s with the construction of Castillo de San Cristóbal. Completed in 1783, the fort practically encircled the entire city of San Juan, and the fort successfully protected the city throughout its lifetime. It was essential during the British invasion of 1797, when Sir Ralph Abercromby invaded Puerto Rico with nearly 13,000. San Cristóbal is also notable for being the site of the first shots in Puerto Rico in the Spanish-American War when, in 1898, the USS Yale fired on the fort.
In its later years, Castilllo San Felipe del Morro served as an American military base, supporting operations during the Spanish-American War and both World Wars. In 1961, the U.S. Army turned control of what was then Fort Brooke over to the National Park Service, and the fort has been part of the San Juan National Historic Site ever since.
San Juan National Historic Site was established on February 14, 1949, listed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966, and designated a World Heritage Site on December 6, 1983. The latter honor places San Juan in exclusive company. To date, only 12 of America’s national parks have been designated World Heritage Sites.
Today, visitors can experience the forts like never before. You can take self-guided tours, or if you prefer, ranger-guided ones. A highlight event is the Spanish dance and festival that is held each Tuesday. Most visitors take to the streets and explore the Old City on foot, treading on the narrow and winding cobblestone paths.
If you like mystery, you'll love Castillo de San Cristóbal. Many Puerto Ricans believe it is haunted. Home to La Garita del Diablo (The Devil's Turret or Devil’s Watchtower), San Cristóbal is said to be a place where soldiers vanished. During the night watch, Spanish soldiers would call out phrases, such as 'Alert!' down the wall to let each other know they were still awake. It’s said that when it became the turn of soldiers stationed in this particular garita, often times they would not answer or call out, and when men went to check on the soldiers, there was only an empty room. (Note: I used the translate.google.com website to translate this interesting story from the original Spanish.)