Fort Wetherill

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Fort Wetherill
Jamestown, Rhode Island
12-in-Disappearing-Carriage-1896.jpg
12-inch gun on disappearing carriage, similar to those at Fort Wetherill.
Type Coast Artillery Fort
Site information
Controlled by United States
Site history
Built 1895–1903
In use 1900–1945
Materials reinforced concrete
Battles/wars World War I, World War II
Garrison information
Past
commanders
Col. Earl C. Webster
Fort Dumpling Site
Fort Wetherill Jamestown RI.JPG
Fort Wetherill is located in Rhode Island
Fort Wetherill
Fort Wetherill is located in USA
Fort Wetherill
Location 3 Fort Wetherill Road Jamestown, Rhode Island
Coordinates 41°28′38″N 71°21′28″W / 41.477325°N 71.35783°W / 41.477325; -71.35783Coordinates: 41°28′38″N 71°21′28″W / 41.477325°N 71.35783°W / 41.477325; -71.35783
Built 1800–1941
Architect United States Army Corps of Engineers
NRHP Reference # 72000021[1]
Added to NRHP March 16, 1972

Fort Wetherill is a former coast artillery fort that occupies the southern portion of the eastern tip of Conanicut Island, located in Jamestown, Rhode Island. The fort sits atop high granite cliffs, overlooking the entrance to Narragansett Bay. Fort Dumpling, dating from the American Revolutionary War, used to occupy a small site until it was built over by Fort Wetherill. The fort was deactivated and turned over to the State of Rhode Island after World War II and is now operated as Fort Wetherill State Park, a 51-acre (210,000 m2) reservation. The park is managed by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

Early history[edit]

Brooklyn Museum - Fort Dumpling, Rhode Island - George L. Clough - overall

In the 18th Century, an earthwork fortification was constructed at the site of Dumpling Rock, which overlooks the strategic East Passage toward Newport. This old fort was occupied by American, British and French forces for various periods of time during the Revolutionary War. The British abandoned the fort at Dumpling Rock in 1779 when they evacuated Newport.

In 1798 construction was started on a permanent fortification at Dumpling Rock under the supervision of Major Louis Tousard of the Army Corps of Engineers. This fort was officially called Fort Louis and, later, Fort Brown (after Major General Jacob Brown, commanding general of the United States Army) but was commonly called Fort Dumpling throughout its existence. Fort Dumpling was in the form of an oval stone tower and was frequently used as an artistic motif and a place for social outings. The fort was mentioned in the Secretary of War's report on fortifications for December 1811 as being at "the Dumplins" and is described as "a circular tower of stone, with casemates... with a small expense, there can be mounted six or eight heavy guns; and now in an unfinished state".[2]

Modern history[edit]

In 1899, during the Endicott period of coastal fortification, the U.S. government purchased additional land and built Fort Wetherill at the site of Fort Dumpling. Fort Wetherill was the largest fort of the Coast Defenses of Narragansett Bay (Harbor Defenses after 1925). The fort was named for Captain Alexander Macomb Wetherill, a Jamestown native who was killed in action during the Battle of San Juan Hill.[3] Fort Dumpling was destroyed in the process of building the new fort, which featured numerous concrete emplacements for 20th-century breech-loading, rifled coast artillery pieces.

A 1921 map of Fort Wetherill
A 1921 map of Fort Wetherill.

In 1901, Battery Varnum, mounting two 12-inch guns on barbette carriages and situated in the far southeast corner of the fort, was the first modern battery to be completed. By 1910, the other six batteries in the fort's pre-World War II arsenal had been brought into service. Although several of these batteries are now overgrown with brush, they offer what is perhaps the longest linear concrete gun line in the coast defenses of New England.[4]

During World War I, the fort was garrisoned by five companies of the Rhode Island National Guard. After the war, Fort Wetherill reverted to "caretaker status," with only a single Coast Artillery sergeant assigned to watch over it and other nearby facilities.[5]

Fort Wetherill was reactivated by the U.S. Army in September 1940 as a major part of the Harbor Defenses of Narragansett Bay and new barracks were built to house the National Guard's 243rd Coast Artillery Regiment and its 1,200 soldiers. The 10th Coast Artillery Regiment of the Regular Army also garrisoned forts in Rhode Island 1924-45. The fort also functioned in the year before World War II as a military training facility, and late in the war as a training center for German prisoners of war. However, the big guns of the Endicott era were mostly scrapped by 1943, as Fort Wetherill was superseded by new defenses centered on Fort Greene and Fort Church. In 1946, the U.S. military ceased operations at Fort Wetherill, and the site remained abandoned for the quarter century that followed.

The State of Rhode Island officially acquired the fort on 16 August 1972, and reconfigured the site for public use as a state park. In 1972 the site was also added to the National Register of Historic Places. The park continues to attract visitors with a variety of modern recreational uses. The property offers walking trails through wooded areas and along the rocky coast, and is a popular destination for scuba diving. Spectacular ocean views draw seasonal visitors from all over who come to observe special events such as the Tall Ships America and annual fireworks displays from atop the old fort.

The Mine Storehouse
The 1940 Mine Storehouse, with tramway tracks.

Another distinctive feature of the fort is its surviving buildings and tramway system that were once used in the operation of the submarine mining operation that was run from the fort during World War I and World War II. During World War II, some 300 mines were planted on the east and west sides of Conanicut Island, protecting the approaches to Newport, and almost all of these were maintained from the Mine Wharf at Fort Wetherill. The image at left shows the old mine storehouse, one of the best preserved in the United States, with the remains of the tram tracks that used to carry the massive mines in and out its front door. Mine launches would tie up at the nearby wharf, load the mines that were to be laid, transport them out into the inlet, and lay them, together with their electric cables. Then, when these mines needed to be taken in, they were ferried back to the wharf and transported on the tramway to the various service buildings. A dual mine observation station sat atop the hill between the storehouse and Battery Varnum.[6] Spotters manned this station (and others scattered around the harbor defenses) and could locate enemy ships approaching the minefields, signaling to the operators in the mining casemate when a given mine was to be electrically detonated.[7]

Modern armament[edit]

Beginning in the early 20th Century, the seven major concrete gun batteries listed below were built and armed at Fort Wetherill.[8] In addition, during World War II Anti-Motor Torpedo Boat (AMTB) Battery 923, consisting of two fixed 90 mm guns plus two towed 90 mm guns, was built on platforms that remained from an earlier antiaircraft gun battery. Only Batteries Dickenson and Crittenden (plus the AMTB battery) were operational during World War II.[9][10] New batteries at Fort Church and Fort Greene, including 16-inch guns, superseded most of Fort Wetherill's batteries.

The batteries at Fort Wetherill were:[10][11]

Name No. of guns Gun type Carriage type Years active
Varnum 2 12-inch gun M1888 barbette M1892 1901-1943
Wheaton 2 12-inch gun M1900 disappearing M1901 1908-1943
Walbach 3 10-inch gun M1888 disappearing M1896 1908-1936
Zook 3 6-inch gun M1903 disappearing M1903 1908-1917
Dickenson 2 6-inch gun M1900 pedestal M1900 1908-1947
Crittenden 2 3-inch M1902 seacoast gun pedestal M1902 1908-1946
Cooke 2 3-inch gun M1898 masking parapet M1898 1901-1920
AMTB 923 4 90 mm gun two fixed T2/M1, two towed 1944-1946

After the US entered World War I, Battery Zook's three 6-inch guns were removed for service on field carriages on the Western Front in 1917 and were never returned to the fort.[10] Records show the guns arrived in France, but a history of the Coast Artillery in World War I states that none of the regiments in France equipped with 6-inch guns completed training in time to see action before the Armistice.[12]

Battery Walbach's three 10-inch guns were also dismounted in 1917 for potential use as railway guns, but two were soon remounted while the third was transferred to nearby Fort Greble in December 1918. The remaining two guns were eventually transferred to Fort H. G. Wright on Fisher's Island, New York in 1936.[10]

Battery Cooke was disarmed in 1920 as part of a general removal from service of the 3-inch gun M1898. The "masking parapet" carriage unique to that weapon was a retractable pedestal carriage. Battery Crittenden's M1902 guns were placed in storage in 1925, but were replaced that year by two 3-inch M1903 guns from Battery Belton at Fort Adams in Newport.[10]

Battery Varnum's guns were scrapped in 1943 as part of a general scrapping of older heavy weapons once new 16-inch gun batteries were completed. Battery Wheaton was probably also removed from service at this time, but for some reason its guns were exempted from scrapping until the war ended.[10]

Battery Dickenson, which lacked a modern gun data computer during WW2, received its fire control radar data from Set 296-9, which was located at Brenton Pt., off Ocean Avenue in Newport.

Current uses[edit]

After being acquired by the state of Rhode Island, Fort Wetherill quickly became a location for great sightseeing and other activities. It is popular to view the Tall Ships America event that takes place in Narragansett Bay every summer, and was (prior to 1984) popular for the America's Cup sailing races. Other activities that are popular for the area include scuba diving, bird watching, fishing, trail walking, dog walking, and graffiti art. The park offers ample parking facilities, public restrooms, trash/dog waste bags, and picnic tables. Jumping off the rocks at Fort Wetherill is prohibited, along with the consumption of alcohol. The park has no entrance fee and can be accessed between sunrise and sunset.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Staff (2007-01-23). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 
  2. ^ Wade, p. 243
  3. ^ See http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/wether.htm.
  4. ^ Sadly, these emplacements are probably also the most severely defaced by graffiti of any in New England, vandalism that continues to this day.
  5. ^ Statement made by a resident of the area who was interviewed at the fort on 26 February 2011, and who reported having played at the fort with other kids during the late 1930s. This respondent reported breaking into one of the fort's powder magazines, removing live powder, and igniting it nearby. He said it "made a big flash."
  6. ^ All that remains today of this former cemesto board structure are the two octagonal concrete columns that served as the foundations for the depression range finders (DPFs) mounted atop them. One of these columns has a modern communications mast affixed to it.
  7. ^ During WW2, both minefields protecting Newport were controlled from a Mining Casemate (at Location 42/Site 1B) northwest of Hull Cove and west of Beavertail Road in what is now Beavertail State Park.
  8. ^ information is from the Coast Defense Study Group website - http://www.cdsg.org/natlan.htm and the FortWiki article on Fort Wetherill - http://www.fortwiki.com/Fort_Wetherill. The terminal dates listed for each battery are those at which the Army formally declared that battery surplus, but in fact, the battery may have been rendered non-operational long before.
  9. ^ Although Battery Wheaton's two 12-inch guns, on disappearing carriages, seem to have remained in place during WW2, being excluded from the scrapping program, they were not considered part of the harbor's WW2 defenses.
  10. ^ a b c d e f FortWiki article on Fort Wetherill
  11. ^ Berhow, p. 205
  12. ^ History of the Coast Artillery Corps in WWI
  • Berhow, Mark A., Ed. (2004). American Seacoast Defenses, A Reference Guide, Second Edition. CDSG Press. ISBN 0-9748167-0-1. 
  • Lewis, Emanuel Raymond (1979). Seacoast Fortifications of the United States. Annapolis: Leeward Publications. ISBN 978-0-929521-11-4. 
  • Wade, Arthur P. (2011). Artillerists and Engineers: The Beginnings of American Seacoast Fortifications, 1794-1815. CDSG Press. p. 235. ISBN 978-0-9748167-2-2. 

Image gallery[edit]

External links[edit]