U.S. Coast Defense Sites After 1950

Joel W. Eastman, Bolling W. Smith, and Mark A. Berhow

Fort DeSoto County Park, St. Petersburg, FL

Fort DeSoto County Park, St. Petersburg, FL

With the tide of World War II shifting toward the Allies after 1942 and the heavy demands for the production of war material for the mobile army, navy, and the air corps, the implementation of the 1940 modernization program for harbor defenses was slowed. While the construction of structures could keep pace with the original plan, the manufacture of weapons and their accessories could not. In response to these pressures, the 1940 program was scaled back. By the war’s end, the modernization program had completed nearly 200 modern and modernized batteries in the continental United States at a cost of $220 million. This represented about one-half the number of gun installations projected in 1940, but it was still the most powerful coast defenses in the nation’s history.

The evolution of military tactics and technology during World War II brought about massive changes in the concept of seacoast defense. By the end of the war, most seacoast batteries were placed on caretaking status – except some 90 mm batteries – while work continued on a few of the uncompleted new batteries. The weapons of the older batteries were being scrapped. By 1949, the decision had been made to deactivate all remaining army coast artillery and – with a few exceptions – scrap the remainder of the big guns of the seacoast artillery. In 1950, all remaining harbor defense commands were disbanded and the Coast Artillery Corps was abolished as a separate branch, its remaining units – all anti-aircraft artillery battalions – were re-combined with the field artillery to form a single artillery arm. After 150 years of being one of America’s military prime missions, the building and manning of permanent coastal fortifications was no longer a part of American military policy. Meanwhile, the responsibility for a limited harbor defense mission was transferred to the U.S. Navy. The seacoast forts and reservations were now available for other purposes. The army retained some and the navy took others for training and for use in its new role of harbor defense.

Transfer of military property

The first large-scale permanent transfer of harbor defense properties from the army began in 1947 and continued through the mid-1950s. A number of coast defense posts had been “abandoned” by the army as active defenses as early as the 1920s – including those at the Mississippi River, Mobile Bay, Tampa Bay, Savannah, Port Royal Sound, and the Cape Fear, Potomac, and Kennebec Rivers. Many of these reservations were reclaimed for use during WW II, but returned to their new owners shortly thereafter. These first rounds of disposals were those reservations that could not be converted to other uses by the various branches of the military. First, other federal agencies had an opportunity to claim all or portions of the former coast artillery sites. Those not transferred were turned over for disposition to the General Services Administration (GSA), who offered them to state, county, and local governments, and finally for sale to private citizens. Before selling or transferring these former forts, the army either returned to its depots all usable equipment, auctioned items in lots to the public, or destroyed items (such as powder supplies) on site. Many of the smaller, independent plots of land which had been leased or purchased for fire control and searchlight positions were returned to the original owners or otherwise sold.

In the early 1970s, the Department of Defense initiated another round of general military reservation closures to reduce basing costs, which included several large former harbor defense sites around San Francisco and New York. Given the large size and value of the properties in these areas, Congress passed several laws that directed the ownership of these former forts to be transferred to the National Park Service (NPS) to form parts of new Golden Gate and Gateway Recreation Areas. This trend continued through 1990s, ending with the closure of the Presidio of San Francisco, Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island, and Fort Trumbull in New London. Now, Fort Monroe is joining the list of closed military posts after nearly 200 years of military service. Of the all the original forts and military reservations used by the United States for harbor and coastal defenses, only a handful remain in military hands in 2011: Fort Story, VA; Fort Hamilton, NY; a large part of Fort Rosecrans, CA; Fort Kamehameha, HI, Fort Hase, HI; and a few other sites.

Fort Parks

Many former coast artillery sites are now administered by other national agencies (such as the National Park Service), state agencies, and local governments for various uses, but mostly as parks and recreation areas, since they inevitably have scenic river or ocean views. Depending on how diligently the GSA protected the sites, and the length of time it took to dispose of them, some sites and structures survived in excellent condition, while others suffered at the hands of salvagers and vandals. Sadly, both local and national government agencies sometimes destroyed historic structures, either because they were considered dangerous and unsightly or too expensive to maintain, or because they simply did not fit the recreational concept of the new parks.

The National Park Service, and the various state and local park services, continue to struggle to preserve and interpret the many coast defense sites they have acquired, often hampered by limited funding and by the perception that while the earlier pre-Civil War forts were historic, the more modern concrete fortifications were not. Rarely do these parks have the resources to undertake full preservation, restoration, and interpretation of all the structures in their care, especially the Endicott-Taft and WWII batteries, buildings, and fire control systems. The almost complete scrapping of disappearing guns, mortars, and barbette guns from these modern concrete batteries also lessened the interest in interpreting these sites, as they were perceived to be beyond any restoration effort. For almost a generation, the concrete fortifications survived, if at all, in a state of neglect, benign or otherwise. In more recent years, as the Endicott-Taft and WWII batteries have aged, and as interest in coast defenses has risen, efforts have been made to preserve and even restore the fortifications and other structures that have survived. Outstanding examples of these efforts are the City of Los Angeles’ Fort MacArthur Museum, Oregon’s Fort Stevens State Park, Washington State’s Fort Casey and Fort Columbia State Parks, Pinellas County’s (FL) Fort DeSoto County Park, and New Jersey’s Fort Mott State Park. At the beginning of the 21st century, new efforts are underway to preserve, restore, and interpret America’s seacoast defense legacy at national, state, and local parks around the country, raising the hope that steady decline and disappearance of these structures will be slowed.

Today, among the best-preserved seacoast fortifications are the remaining Third-System (and earlier) works, which played prominent roles in the American Civil War as military objectives, fortified strong points, and prisons. Only a few Third-System forts have been destroyed; the vast majority have been turned into historic parks, and they are protected as historic landmarks from future destruction, although the cost of upkeep is high and many have deferred maintenance needs.

While many of the Endicott-Taft batteries are now located within parks, they have not been accorded the same level of protection or care as earlier forts. Most are considered to be, at the worst, a legal liability, or at best, an eyesore to the park. Park administrations have built on top of them, fenced them in, buried them, and destroyed them in an effort to prevent these structures from interfering with the park’s primary mission of providing recreation space. If the owners of the site do not damage them, then vandals do by smashing doors and windows, dumping trash, and setting fires, so that after a while they have turned these structures into derelicts. Those structures that have been left alone have suffered from nature’s own attack, particularly those where the freeze-thaw cycle works on the concrete and brick, and everywhere the rusting of rebar and other metal work has hastened deterioration. Vegetation and tree roots have also played their part, causing some structures to collapse. Finally, ocean’s waves and spray have reduced some structures to rubble. While most gun emplacements have been constructed to resist these attacks, supporting wood and cement plaster tactical structures have largely collapsed, and even brick structures have been damaged or destroyed by vandals. Non-tactical structures, particularly officers’ quarters, have survived at several parks and government-owned sites through adaptive reuse, but at other former posts such structures have been completely removed, leaving only the more stubborn concrete emplacements.

Currently, many World War II-era concrete batteries and tactical structures survive in very good condition due to their relatively recent construction and to the high quality of their concrete. However, many have been sealed, some buried, a few demolished, and other used as foundations for homes. High economic values for oceanfront property have been key drivers in the destruction of many of these World War II structures, even though the structures themselves were in excellent condition. In some instances, adaptive reuse has given these structures a new lease on life, although with varying results as far as historic preservation is concerned. Steel radar towers were taken down soon after the war and steel observation towers are being removed as they age. Some concrete towers have been demolished as eyesores and attractive nuisances. While these towers are important sites, their days are numbered, and substantial infusions of money will be required to preserve many examples. World War II theater-of-operations buildings were almost all removed after the war, while many mobilization buildings still survive, particularly on military controlled sites, but now even those are being demolished after 50 years of use.

Historical Interest

Interest in the history of American coast defenses has grown substantially during the last 50 years as the public has gained increasing access to such sites. The publication of Seacoast Fortifications of the United States: An Introductory History, by E.R. Lewis in 1970 was a pivotal event, giving the public and park personnel a well-documented interpretive history of American coast defenses. A group of coast defense enthusiasts held the first national conference in 1978, and they organized the Coast Defense Study Group (CDSG) in 1985. The CDSG’s annual conferences, journal, newsletter, web site, and reprints of key coast defense books have played important roles in fostering interest in the history of American coast defense and assisting both the public and park staffs in understanding the fascinating history of these defenses and interpreting their surviving elements. Finally, the very nature of these fortifications has played a role in growing public interest. Since they were designed to withstand the impact of naval artillery, these massive structures have been able to withstand both the natural climate and economic development longer than other military features from the same periods. The mere fact that these structures that incorporated the leading edge of technology of their time are still standing 50 to 100 years after their effective use ended, draws the public to study them and to seek to understand their purpose and history. It is hoped that this interest will translate into efforts to preserve and restore these sites for current and future generations.