In 1899, a mysterious fort was built off the coast of St. Petersburg. There, Russian researchers were conducting experiments on animals that were likely killing them. The bodies of the research subjects were burned on the fort. It wasn’t just the animals that were in danger. The research being performed in the mysterious fortress were a threat to humans as well. What were they trying to accomplish on the fort?
Fort Alexander I
The fort, Fort Alexander I, was named after the Russian emperor who ruled as Tsar from 1801 until 1825. The fort was initially designed to be a stronghold to protect the Russian capital of St. Petersburg from attacks in the Baltic Sea. When the fort was built, the city was vulnerable to naval assault along the Gulf of Finland.
The Flood Of 1824
In 1824, the river Neva flooded and swept away the city’s massive defenses made of wood. This is was the worst flood in St. Petersburg history. After the flood, Tsar Nicholas I decided that the city needed new protective structures that were made of stone. They needed to be sure that the structure would last. The plans for the fort weren’t drawn up until three years after the flood, and the construction didn’t begin until 1845. Toward the end of the 19th century, the locals started calling the fort, the Plague Fort.
More Than a Fort
The plans involved more than just building a fort. They also wanted to make a man-made island for the fort to sit on. To build the island, the workers had to drive 5,535 40-foot piles into the seabed. They were the basis for concrete blocks, sand, and slabs of granite. The fort built on the island was massive. It is 295-feet by 196-feet, and it was made of thick red bricks encased in granite. When you look at the fort from above, it looks similar to a kidney bean. The Tsar made sure that the fort was armed, able to fight off any attack. The 54,400 square feet of floor space was capable of holding up to 1,000 troops. The fort was built with 103 port holes for cannons to be deployed. The whole time troops were on the fort; a shot was never fired.
Moritz von Jacobi
In 1853, a German-Russian engineer named Moritz von Jacobi invented a mine that was designed to use at sea. He created a device to attach to the seafloor with an anchor. There was a cable running from the mine to a power cell located on land. The cell was capable of detonating a charge of 31 pounds of gunpowder. The first time Jacobi’s invention was every deployed was on Fort Alexander.
The 19th Century
During the 19th century, new developments were made in gunnery. This made structures like Fort Alexander unnecessary. The rifled barrel was used instead of cannons. The shells that could be fired from the rifled barrels were capable of firing at much higher speeds. This made cannons obsolete. They also shot at higher velocities than cannons, which meant that they could penetrate harder targets, like the walls of Fort Alexander. This resulted in Fort Alexander being decommissioned.
The Bubonic Plague
Fort Alexander’s next chapter came about thanks to a medical breakthrough. In 1894, a scientist named Alexandre Emile Jean Yersin identified the pathogen that caused the bubonic plague. It was discovered that the plague could be transmitted from rodents to humans through flea bites. This discovery prompted the Russian government to set up the Commission on the Prevention of Plague Disease. The researchers on Alexander were carrying out research into the bacteriology of the deadly disease. Because the research was so dangerous, the scientists needed to be isolated during the experiments. The government believed that Fort Alexander would be the perfect place.
Creating the Lab
Changes needed to be made in the fort. It was fitted with labs; many were contained to minimize the dangers of working with lethal bacteria. There was a stable built, that could hold up to 16 horses to be experimented on. There was also in incineration facility designed to dispose of any horses that died during the experiments safely. They also included a comprehensive science library. The cost of the new laboratory was paid for by a Russian philanthropist, Duke Alexander Petrovich of Oldenburg.
Living On the Fort
Many of the doctors and scientists lived on the fort. Some of them moved there with their families. There was only one way to get there, on a steamer named the Microbe. Because of the dangerous experiments being performed on the fort, visitors were carefully controlled. As time went on, the lab was used to test other fatal diseases such as tetanus, cholera, typhus, and scarlet fever. During this time, there were three cases of plague affection the staff in 1904 and 1907. The outbreaks claimed two lives. The bodies were incinerated, and the fort was shut down.
Today, the fort is abandoned. There were plans to open it back up in 2007, but they never came to be. This history of the fort is incredible, and only time will tell if it will ever be used again. The abandoned Russian fort that once housed a deadly research facility has a horrible history, which may be why it has been abandoned all these years.