Queenswalk: Fort Tilden, Guarding New York City


    I don’t know about you, but the thought of missiles rising out of their silos on the shores of Queens scares the heck out of me. The fact that anyone thought this was a good idea, and necessary to the national defense worries me as well, but we have long lived in a scary world. The silos and the missiles existed, although they weren’t the same as the huge ICBM rockets coming out of Midwest cornfields. During the very scary years of World War II, followed by the Cold War, Fort Tilden, along with Sandy Hook’s Fort Hancock and Staten Island’s Fort Wadsworth, became the City’s line of defense, protecting us until 1974, when the missiles and the military were gone, and the nature claimed the beaches once more as its own.

    Fort Tilden is part of the Rockaway Peninsula, and is now a part of larger Gateway National Recreation Area. It faces out towards the sea, with Jacob Riis Park to the east and Breezy Point to the west. Military strategists have long figured that this was a fine place for a defensive fort, and the first fortifications, in the form of a blockhouse with cannon on top, were built here in time for the War of 1812. They were not permanent fortifications, and the area remained sea marshland, dunes and beach for most of the 19th century. In fact, the sandy beaches and sharp blowing sand were part of the reason the area was not given a more permanent fortress.

    But that changed when the United States prepared to enter the battlefields of World War I, in 1917. There already was a Coast Guard station here, and the Army surveyed around the peninsula for the idea spot for a coastal fort. This area was chosen, even though the sandy ground would prove to be a problem. The land had to be firm enough to support heavy gunfire, but the sandy dunes were far too mobile. Concrete bedrock would have to be constructed underneath the heavy gun turrets and fortifications. Fort Tilden, named for Samuel J. Tilden, a former military man and past governor of New York, was officially established in 1917.

    A garrison of four officers and 130 men were assigned to begin building the living quarters needed in order for the men to build the rest of the fortifications. This assignment, technically in New York City, was like a posting in Siberia. It was remote, the roads were bad, it was hard to get supplies in, the working conditions were brutal, and they began in the dead of winter, in February of 1917. The closest freight railroad station was shared with commercial and naval facilities, and there were often tensions about whose priorities were greater when it came to loading and unloading materials.

    The men built officer’s quarters, barracks, mess halls, lavatories, a hospital, stables, sheds, roads and more. They were not builders, and many of the structures were substandard and inadequate for the nasty weather. They were not supposed to be permanent, because a contractor had been hired to build the “real” base, this was just temporary. Most of the building built that winter had to be rebuilt. It seems highly inefficient, but perhaps the threat of impending war made this necessary.

    Conditions at Fort Tilden were about as far from ideal as one could get. They seemed to be making everything up as they went along, as planning for the Fort was terribly short sighted and ill-planned. The shifting sands were a huge problem in just about every aspect of construction and function. Nothing was stable, and nothing was permanent, except the movement of the sand. They realized they needed potable drinking water, so a pipe was laid to the water supply of the nearby town of Roxbury. The quality was poor and often undrinkable. On top of that, the three inch main was buried in the sand. At night, the winter winds blew the sand away from the pipe, and it froze. They had to abandon that idea and run underground mains to the Queens central water supply at Rockaway Beach.

    It was difficult to lay roads out here, mostly because of the sand, so roads had to continuously be repaired and rebuilt. New sewer pipes had to be laid, and connected to the mains that emptied out into Jamaica Bay. Originally, the entire installation was lit by kerosene lamps, as the electric lines did not come out that far. That proved to be highly inefficient, and finally, the power lines had to be run on poles out to the fort. By the time all of the work on the infrastructure and living/working facilities of Fort Tilden was completed, it was 1919, and the war was over.

    The gun platforms were built, and built well. In 1917, eleven carloads of cut blue stone were shipped to the nearest railroad station. Forty horse-drawn and motor trucks, with 150 men followed, taking the stone to the fort, where they built the foundations and platforms for the guns that would provide the first line of defense, if needed. Four six-inch guns, which came from West Point, were installed, and platforms for twelve-inch mortars were erected in what is now Jacob Riis Park.

    After World War I was over, the rushed efforts to build Fort Tilden came to a crashing halt. The garrison was reduced to a handful of caretakers. The Army didn’t seem to know if they were keeping the fort or closing it, so they basically did not much of anything. The installation of two big 16” guns, permanently placed in 1924 didn’t even make much difference. The guns were not taken care of, and pleas from the post commander for funds to maintain the facility went unheeded. The temporary buildings began to return to nature, and the whole place looked bad.

    In 1922, New York City asked the Army for some of the fort’s acreage to add to the city park next door, since it didn’t look like the fort was necessary, and the Army gave a very loud “No.” After that, the Army started to beef up armaments, adding more guns, and they modernized the weaponry and fortifications. However, the largest guns in the facility ended up always in need of constant maintenance, due to the unceasing blowing sands that got into everything and gummed up the works, literally.

    By the end of the 1920s, the overall conditions of the fort were abysmal, and frankly, embarrassing to the military. They embarked on an ambitious plan of planting beach grasses to try to control the blowing sand, but their efforts were proving inadequate. Nature was winning. The sand was everywhere, and in everything. It blew up against the dilapidated buildings, and got into the machinery. The sand ate away at metal, and turned the wooden buildings into kindling. A caretaker staff was not able to maintain the fort with any semblance of success.

    The Army finally decided that they wanted Fort Tilden to play a major role in the permanent defense of New York City, and would need to build a more permanent facility there. The makeshift wooden buildings needed to go, and a first class facility needed to be built. In order to do that, the Army wanted to get control of part of the Coast Guard facility on the peninsula, which would enable them to get roads and utilities extended to the fort. Over the objections of the Secretary of the Treasury, which had jurisdiction of the Coast Guard at the time, permission was granted in 1928.

    By 1936, they were able to obtain the rest of the Coast Guard land that faced the ocean. It was just in time, as World War II was looming on the horizon, and everyone could see that this time, war was going to be much worse than before. The defense of New York City was going to need to be taken seriously this time. GMAP

    Next time: Fort Tilden prepares for World War II, and beyond.

    (Above: One of the 16″ guns installed in 1924. Photo:oocities.com/Fort Tilden)

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