images of this Property
15 images: Press to view larger or scroll sideways to see more. All photos by Howie Sneider
About this Property
Fort Wetherill State Park, situated upon 100 foot high granite cliffs across the water from Fort Adams State Park, is a former coastal defense battery and training camp. Known for its view of Newport Harbor and the East Passage of Narragansett Bay, Fort Wetherill has been a popular sight for viewing the numerous Tall Ship Events and America’s Cup Races. The area is also a major attraction for scuba diving, with Diving Clubs from New York State, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island using the facilities. The park offers family and group picnicking, boating, fishing, hiking, and exploring on the park’s 61.5 acres of property.
Fort Wetherill traces its history back to the revolutionary war when it was an 8-gun earthwork fortification at the site of Dumpling Rock. In 1798, construction was started on a permanent fortification under the supervision of the Army Corps of Engineers and was called Fort Louis. In 1899, the U.S. government purchased additional land and built Fort Wetherill at the site. (Wikipedia)
Essay, by Howie Sneider
The abandoned forts and the military architectural history of Rhode Island is exciting and curious to me at the same time. I am fascinated by these relics, and their intended meaning versus their actual purpose. The impression which the military has left on The American landscape is upwards of 30 million acres in the continental United States of which nearly 12 million has been decommissioned or passed back to civilian hands. Much like so many other temples of the past, this land is subject to burial, state park and historical status, or it becomes restricted and forgotten.
We exist in a world full of structures and devices which we don’t understand, and where knowledge is lost we create legends. It is the constant struggle of the archeologist to relate available facts and trends. Is it is more fitting to view history through our standards or those in which it was created? The forts of Rhode Island interest me mostly because of their status as things which exist and will continue to exist in our community with little appreciation of their meaning and history.
My discomfort with this lies in my honest fascination with military history. Why is it important to me to see how we fortify? How has it changed through the years? What do we do when the sites and the methods of defense are obsolete? Fort Wetherilll in Jamestown could be torn down, but the effort it takes to demolish something built to withstand a military assault is remarkable. And yet, why not demolish these violent ghosts of our past?
Fort Wetherill in Jamestown has doorways, passages, corridors for cables, tracks for moving ammunition, and a thousand places to travel in an underground labyrinth. But the military, unlike the Mayans, left no relics at all. They remove all wires, phones, guns, fittings, and plumbing when they decommission a site. They only leave contaminated soil and poorly placed cisterns or buried waste deposits. But that is to be expected of any heavy use industry. My point is that they strip most of the evidence of their purpose when they depart. Are they therefore even leaving a historical site? When I first encountered Wetherill, I could imagine people performing Shakespeare in the 12 gun placements, a skate park atop ammunition storage facilities and greenhouses blossoming in the command towers. These were not suggestive of the site’s past. In fact its past is somewhat of a mystery to a typical visitor to the site.
I used to live in Utrecht — a city about the size of Providence in the Netherlands. One day, I was walking in the fields and the farms on the west side of the town, just past the stadium. I had parked my bike where the trees were thick, by the banks of a canal. My walk led me over a barbed wire fence, through the muddy prairie, to a large concrete structure, somewhat towering in the pasture. Everything in Holland is flat. Therefore the contrast of the object with its surroundings made it much more profound than it may have been otherwise. But there it was, flat on one face, angled, geometrically complex, with a series of rebar posts sticking out on the sides. As I struggled to climb up the wall, gripping the steel rods, I kept a wary eye on the cows which took no notice at all of me. I made it to the top and looked out across the farms. There were dozens of these monoliths surrounding. They were all oriented the same direction, or close enough that they created a wall, at least suggestively. They were each a hundred yards apart and they continued on through the trees, all basically identical. As I wandered more that day I found concrete doorways leading underground, sealed by bricks, filled with water. Later I’d find that they were remnants of German occupation during WWII. None of my Dutch friends had any idea what they were. Either their government or the Germans had stripped them of all recognizable markings.
Nearby are a handful of Dutch forts built to protect the lower Rhine as it crosses through Holland. Mainly constructed in the 18th century, they have all be recognized as historic landmarks and have been given the utmost attention and careful restoration. Everyone wants to recall their brightest times. It serves us well to recognize prosperity where it lies, in pockets beneath our current politics. My status as a foreigner in utrect allowed me to recognize a potential which was being overlooked again and again. It was also My first encounter with abandoned military sites. My research during the time I spent there led me into broader search when I returned to Rhode Island. For the first time I noticed that along with our visible active military culture there was also a significant amount of unresolved history.
Since the revolutionary war there have been defenses in the Narragansett Bay. Yet, since the civil war they haven’t been threatened directly or used. We have built new batteries regularly and commissioned new forts. I don’t see any fundamental problem with this. One could argue that it is entirely wasted money and time, but the alternative doesn’t seem to be peace. As far as modern administrations are concerned the solution is to build missile bases. Even these have been constantly updated and abandoned, but the policy is now to protect the coasts with Minuteman II’s, Nike-Hercules missiles or other weapons of mass destruction. Many are now housed in the Midwest, but their recent predecessors are abandoned slabs of concrete here in Rhode Island and other coastal states. There are policy reasons for this as well, and some are not easily disputed. There is a certain amount of security gained from a thousand mile buffer around missile bases. Regardless, some are now in the same condition as Fort Wetherill, Grebble, Church and Beavertail.
The pictures in this collection are loosely arranged by site, with details and broad views. The majority of them are at Fort Wetherill State Park in Jamestown, RI. The other pictures are of a fortified sighting station in Horseneck Beach State Park, MA. The only other site included is just outside of Beavertail State Park in Jamestown, RI.
Each site has different functional and visual characteristics. Wetherill was a collection of batteries, some with a range of 17,300 yards/10 miles, and others designed for direct troop engagement. The walls are thick, and during a battle the buildings would be full of troops hiding from the recoil of the massive guns, all of which were remote operated. It’s an Endicott-era design from the 1890’s. Most importantly it is solid, and it’s not going to change with any small effort. Climbing through the brush offers a lot of surprises. Its ancient feel is due mainly to the weight of the concrete and its dimensions of the structures in contrast to the quickly assembled and temporarily intended Quonset hut at Beavertail. Fort Wetherill has been used as for training/reeducation of German POW’s, troop stationing, and research. Currently as a state park, it is home to a SCUBA diving club and a marine research lab.
The photographs from Westport offer a different kind of design strategy. The taller of the two towers is intended to be mistaken for a lighthouse. This is a protective measure meant as a deterrent for invading air forces, and a smokescreen of government activities. Early camouflage designs for naval use tell a different story which suggests that they may have tried to hide the tower. The smaller tower is much thicker, and has turrets and mounts for some kind of large guns, it’s obvious intent as protection for the larger sighting tower. This site was a spotting station which primarily kept a watch on the horizon waiting for an invading fleet. When contact was established coordinates would be wired to Wetherill or a similar post which was waiting and ready to aim and fire. The area is grassy, and undulations in the landscape reveal an underground structure which I have not explored. I have been told that it was once exposed, and then buried due to vandalism and insurance reasons. Undoubtedly, this was done around the time which it became public state land, and a protected wildlife refuge.
They are different from textile mills and period architecture because of their rigidity and sustainability. They will not wash away. How will we deal with these spaces in the future? If, like the mills, we wait until people take an interest in the land, not the structures, they will be harder to preserve; they will decay, or be forgotten. Finding a cultural value in our landscape is a romantic ideal. Everything bears the mark of humanity, either through its development or its protection. We have created a new ecology which is based on the knowledge of our own historical construction and materials.
On Dutch Island off the coast of Jamestown there is a site which was used by our military for over 100 years. It includes a lighthouse, and a number of concrete structures which could not be removed. The site has been closed for a few years due to an accident in which a dog drowned in an open cistern. The liability concerns with the site are directly related to a lost knowledge of the islands previous use. If we were told what to look for. If we understood our defenses well enough to recognize hazards we would be far better prepared for exploring or simply living with these sites. The universal warning and danger identification system has not been perfected. It isn’t vandal proof and everyone has the option of disobeying signs. I am not suggesting that any area be closed off to the public. I’d like to propose that abandoned spaces are as much a part of our ecological presence as forests. It is not taken for granted that someone can survive in the woods with no experience, nor should it be expected that people are able to encounter abandoned spaces without knowledge of their unique set of dangers.
In closing I must admit it does not make me feel safe knowing the might and power of our military as it exists or in the way it once existed. Nor is it comforting to think about the speed and precision which we have replaced it.
— With caution, Howie Sneider; submitted to ArtInRuins