May 29, 2012

Costal Defenses (EDIT)

San Francisco: Third System Fort Point underneath the Golden Gate Bridge.

I have always been fascinated by the heavy cement bunkers we pass on the way to the top of Point Loma in San Diego.  It appears I am not alone.  There’s been a rising interest in American Coastal Defenses in the last fifty years.   From the earliest dirt, sand, and log forts to the Nike missile installations, the California coast line has them all.  The San Francisco area has the best examples of reuse of coastal defenses as parks and recreation areas.

Craig Swain writes in his blog, Bring the Heat, Bring the Stupid, that coastal defenses have eight periods.  They are called, “First System, Second System, Third System, Civil War era, Endicott, Taft, World War I/Interwar, and World War II.  By the end of World War II, technology and international realities rendered “coastal defense” a secondary role for the Army.  Regardless of obsolescence, the forts, batteries, and guns left after 160 some odd years of activity speak to the history of the US Army and the United States.”  I rediscovered these architectural treasures as we traveled the state, and now I actively seek them out where ever we go.

tells us that in 1793, Congress created a combined unit of artillerymen and engineers, and in 1794 they did the first studies of coastal defense needs.  That year they also appropriated money to construct the first coastal fortifications that would become known as the First System works.  Those first forts, constructed by on-duty soldiers, were low-walled sloped earthworks that protected brick or wood inner walls.  Tramping through these early defenses today, I can feel the cannon balls hitting these revetments, and I can imagine the troops waiting behind their earthen embankments. 

After winning the revolutionary war, congress brought in European engineers to build twenty-one new First System fortifications on the east coast, but funding was limited and not many of these forts were finished before the war of 1812 with the British.  These early forts were very successful against the wooden sailing ships of the era.  With improvements in artillery, the typical low-walled, open bastion, or star forts major weakness was its open exposure.  The new devices were designed to explode in mid air and rain shrapnel down on the exposed gunners.

In response to these artillery improvements at the end of the Revolutionary war, “Congress created a Military Academy, and separated the artillerists and engineers into separate corps,” > tells us, “One of the driving forces for establishing this new academy was the need to divorce the United States from its reliance on foreign engineers. In 1807-1808 new concerns over a possible war with Great Britain, prompted President Thomas Jefferson to renew fortification programs; this has come to be known as the Second System.” 

 “These forts began the familiar looking brick and stone forts that eventually lined the eastern seaboard, and the Gulf Coast.  Masonry construction was used extensively and casemates, armored compartments, were included to provide overhead and direct fire protection for guns and men, though not to the extent seen in later forts. The defenders of Second System forts still had to fight in the open, firing over parapets.  Their design also included bastions or blockhouses to protect their landward side and bring fire on to attackers at the walls.”  These forts did deter the British, but not enough of them had been built. states, “After the War of 1812, Congress appropriated over $800,000 for an ambitious seacoast defensive system which was known as the Third System.  The main defensive works were large structures, again based on the French military theorist Montalembert’s concepts, with many guns concentrated in tall thick masonry walls, usually built on the sites of earlier forts. Construction was generally overseen by officers of the army's Corps of Engineers.”  From The National Park Service;, we learn that it wasn’t just servicemen, but hired workers and slaves that also did the construction.  In the end, although sites for 200 forts were chosen, only 42 were built.  Among them were the first two forts constructed on the west coast both in San Francisco:  Fort Point and Fort Alcatraz.

Fort Alcatraz: Landing area and early Fort buildings, Civil War era structures, and built over Casements.

In 1885, US President Grover Cleveland appointed a joint army, navy and civilian board, headed by Secretary of War William C. Endicott, known as the Board of Fortifications. The board findings showed a grim picture of existing defenses in its 1886 report and recommended a massive $127 million construction program of breech-loading cannons, mortars, floating batteries, and submarine mines for some 29 locations on the US coastline.

Fort Baker, Battery Spencer an 1886 Endicott era coastal defense construction.
Defense construction had stopped at the end of the Civil War, but the design of heavy ordnance advanced rapidly soon making the US harbor defenses obsolete.  The Endicott Board recommended a large scale modernization program of harbor and coastal defenses in the United States, especially the construction of modern reinforced concrete fortifications and the installation of large caliber breech-loading artillery and mortar batteries.  Today many of these structures look flimsy to me, but they were used successfully until WWI.   

“Typically, Endicott period projects were not fortresses, but a system of well-dispersed emplacements with few but large guns in each location. The structures were usually open-topped concrete walls protected by sloped earthworks. Many of these featured disappearing guns, which sat protected behind the walls, but could be raised to fire. Mine fields were a critical component of the defense, and smaller guns were also employed to protect the mine fields from mine sweeping vessels.”  Board of Fortifications.
By the start of WWI, new weapons rendered these forts and many of the forts were stripped of their weapons which were sent to the European fight.  By 1920, the Endicott era batteries were rearmed with larger canon.  Before the start of the WWII, these batteries were reinforced by heavy concrete bunkers designed to last many lifetimes, and during the WWII period were given still larger canon to defend mine fields at the bay mouth far below.  Climbing the seaward cliffs of San Francisco or San Diego, you can still see the many bunkers built to protect us from the Japanese.  On the East coast, similar Bunkers lined the Atlantic Ocean against Hitler’s forces.  On several sites along the coasts, Nike missile installations are open for visiting.
Fort Baker: Unknown WWII Bunker, Nike installation.

Today you can picnic or bike ride among the thousands of Forts and Bunkers all across America.  Thanks to the National Park Service, we now have access to many of these wonderful spaces for historic research and recreational use.  Some sites are still in use by the military.  In San Diego, one bunker site contains huge water tanks used to train dolphins that are now used to defend our harbor.  Some bunkers were taken over during the Cold war by the National Electronics Laboratory.  One area of Fort Rosecrans is now used by a very full Military Cemetery.  Other sites were destroyed after the war as having no further use.  

All across the nation, reuse of these sites for recreational purposes has been very successful but none more than the many coastal defenses open to the public in San Francisco.  There you can find children’s camps, art projects and studios, officer housing as rentals, and many other things all freely mixed in with the many years of Coastal Defenses.   It’s one of the best reuse of historical sites found all maintained on a tiny budget with great passion.


  1. of my favorite words!

  2. I buzzed over this, but am coming back to read it thoroughly. Great subject. Love your photos too. Dianne

  3. For years, Chester Arthur was just a name in the list. Then, the History Channel presented with me with some of his remarkable accomplishments, all the more remarkable because he was not a healthy man. We would have lost the Spanish American War without the Navy he rebuilt.

    And then I bought a book about the presidents, and it says that Arthur was just a "party hack." I am always glad to see good stuff about Chester Arthur.

  4. You noted that sites for 200 forts were chosen, but only 42 were built. Do you know of any others. I'm quite fascinated myself about the old fort in St. Augustine, Florida. I'll bet you'd enjoy that one too. (I think that was you? in your new jeans perhaps? See how observant I am!)

  5. My nephew and I visited the old bunkers at the Hoover Dam. Amazing!


What a delight to get a note from you. Thanks for leaving one.


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