Fort Hancock is home to the oldest operating lighthouse in the United States. Naval defenses were established here during the War of 1812 and construction continued thru into the civil war. An ordinance testing ground (i.e. they tested weapons) was established here in the 1850’s. In the 1890’s the first gun batteries were built, and during the early 20th century the focus was on coastal defense against warships.
With the nuclear age and long range bombers the new concern was that Soviet aircraft would try to bomb the US so a Nike program was established at Fort Hancock. These missiles were the last line of defense against such attacks. In 1974 Fort Hancock was deactivated and was transferred to the National Park Service as part of Gateway National Recreation Area.
The Park now gives tours of the Batteries, and will soon begin offering tours of the radar site.
While researching Fort Hancock I found out that they give tours of the gun batteries, and soon will do radar site tours as well. To find out about these tours, call them at 732 872-5900 and they’ll add you to their mailing list. These tours will be done throughout the summer. Note that the tours are brief 45 minute walk thrus, where the programs are fully detailed including slide shows. The tour begins with a slide show and history lesson which discusses the history of Fort Hancock as it relates to American defense against the British, and how it then became a Nike base in the 60’s before becoming obsolete when missile technology improved. Much of the following information comes from the official Fort Hancock website, and from what I learned at the slide show.
The First Lighthouse:
Any ship entering the New York must first pass Sandy Hook before heading up through the “Narrows”. In 1764 a lighthouse was erected to guide ships past the hook and it’s dangerous waters. This lighthouse still operates today and is Americas oldest operating lighthouse. The British took control of the lighthouse during the Revolutionary War until the war’s end.
The first defense at the Jersey Shore:
The War of 1812 saw the first American built fortifications constructed at Sandy Hook, however no trace of them remains today. In the 1850’s work began on a massive granite block “Third System” fort at Sandy Hook. Construction progressed through the Civil War, and the fort was nearly complete when construction was halted. Only a small portion of this beautiful granite fort remains. In 1874 the US Army opened the Sandy Hook Proving Ground, where new types of ordnance was developed and tested. Breech loading steel cannon were developed, with far longer range and much more destructive capability. Masonry forts could not house these massive guns, and their walls could not stand up to their power. As the 1880’s dawned it became apparent that The United States’ seacoast defenses were woefully inadequate and had to be upgraded. In 1885 President Grover Cleveland appointed a board consisting of members of the army, navy and also civilians. The board was headed by then Secretary of War, William C Endicott. The Endicott Board recommended a massive upgrading of America’s seacoast defenses and also listed which ports were a priority. New York City was at the top of the list.
Fort Hancock Is Built:
In 1890 work began on the first gun batteries at Sandy Hook. In October of 1895 the fort at Sandy Hook was named “Fort Hancock” in honor of Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, who died in 1886. General Hancock was one of the Union Army’s most able commanders and is credited with deploying The Army of The Potomac so effectively at the Battle of Gettysburg. As the 1890’s became the 1900’s Fort Hancock grew in both size and strength. Most of the posts cantonment buildings were constructed, as well as many off its numerous gun batteries during this period.
The interwar years saw Fort Hancock revert to a quiet peacetime routine. However, as war clouds gathered over Europe and Manchuria in the late 1930’s, the United States began a massive upgrade of its military along with the first ever peacetime draft. Fort Hancock saw a huge increase in manpower and buildings were built to house, feed and service them. After Pearl Harbor work reached a fever pitch as some gun batteries were modernized and casemated while older, obsolete batteries were disarmed and their guns cut up for scrap.
Fort Hancock the Nike Base:
After World War Two ended the new threat to the US was to come from the air and not the sea and so the Army’s coast defense guns were scraped and the Coast Artillery Corps was abolished. Fort Hancock was declared surplus but then fate intervened, North Korea invaded South Korea and America entered the Korean War and the Cold War between the West and the Warsaw Pact began. Fort Hancock became home to the Nike series of anti-aircraft missiles to defend against Soviet bombers. In 1974 Fort Hancock was deactivated and was transferred to the National Park Service as part of Gateway National Recreation Area.
See all my pictures here
Part of the radar site
After the slide show we went into several gun batteries where we saw how they operated and what they did. One of the first batteries we visited was Battery Potter. We were able to go all the way inside and thruout the tunnels, from the shell storage areas to the lift areas, we saw everything. This was the site of the first ever (and only) steam-powered battery lift ever in the entire world.
Next was battery Granger, whose tour was limited because it has not been fully restored yet to the point where it was safe to go, so we just went on top.
Then it was on to the mortar battery, which is a more modern, and very different type of battery. There was no LOS to the target with these guns. There were 4 guns in a battery which aimed up in the air quite high. A spotter would determine the distance to the target, and give range and distance directions to the gunners who would lob the shells in high arcs to the target. If they misses the spotter recalculated and another shot would be fired. The shells could go very high and very far, and all of this was done without worry about suffering return fire since they were below dune level. Unless the enemy had similar guns and could lob shots back, they were virtually unhittable, not to mention invisible as well.
In case of a ground attack, the mortar batteries could only be entered thru long corridors which had machine guns at opposing angles. You could not get down one of these corridors without being caught in the crossfire.
We finally saw a gun up close at Battery Gunnison. It was near dark and so the pictures are kinda lousy but you can see how big and massive these guns were. Very impressive stuff.
Learn much more about Fort hancock here