Queens has not one, but two defunct military installations sitting at opposite ends of the borough, both formed to protect New York City from attacks that ultimately never transpired. Over 20 miles from Fort Totten in Bayside Queens is Fort Tilden, tucked away in the maritime forests of Rockaway Peninsula. Fort Tilden was officially established in 1917 but records indicate that the area’s first defense installation dates back to the War of 1812. More than a century following, advancements in artillery brought two massive sixteen-inch cannons to Fort Tilden. Just to provide insight, each weighed 165 tons and was capable of launching 1,200 pound projectiles 28 miles. They were also placed into 360° panama mounts giving Battery Harris the ability to drop half a ton of lead over 2,500 sq. miles of surrounding sea and land. Having the fort on the coastline was crucial to the army’s ability to monitor the Lower Bay, but concerns about the heavy gunfire on a foundation of sand required artificial bedrock to be laid beneath the batteries.
Into World War II, the addition of massive reinforced concrete casemates limited the turning radius of each cannon to 145° to protect the them from aerial attacks and to keep Manhattan out of range in case of enemy takeover. They were completed in 1943 and covered with soil and vegetation to camouflage. Other structures that comprised the military complex were spread apart to decrease vulnerability. The military centralized the buildings by building a railroad system that would transport ammunition from the magazines to the casemates. Battery Harris was prepared for WWII, but was for better or for worse never called into action. In fact, the comically large guns of Battery Harris East and West were only fired once—to see if they worked after being put into place. In 1948, the batteries were deactivated and the massive guns were cut to pieces and carted off to a scrap yard.
Into the 1950’s with the Cold War, concerns over the city’s security were once again raised, resulting in the construction of state of the art surface-to-air missile silos. It wasn’t long before the original Nike-Ajax missiles, with a range of 25 miles, gave way to 40-foot long Nike-Hercules missiles with a range of 90 miles. Each weighed 5 tons and was equipped with warheads packing twice the blast power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Again, the fort and its potential to cause destruction was never called upon and by 1974 Fort Tilden was decommissioned and turned over to the National Park Service. Today, the magazines, power-generating stations, and other surrounding buildings have fallen into disrepair, while the casemates of Battery Harris East and West boldly withstand the erosive conditions of Breezy Point. With the casemate walls as thick as ten feet and no thinner than four, it’s going to take a long time for wind, sand, rain and Hurricane Sandy to take them down.
Considering the brutal weather conditions at Fort Tilden and the Park Service’s (relatively justifiable) neglect of the buildings, it’s shocking any stand at all. The magazines are covered in graffiti and are considerably decayed. Large concrete blocks that make up their roofs have collapsed in many areas making it unsettling to stand under those that haven’t. Farther east is a warehouse (BLDG 9) visible from the Battery Harris East viewing deck; the inside of which reveals random discarded items such as park signs, pianos, shredded municipal event banners, a variety of chairs and a rotting golf cart. Next door is a smaller building—home to the “Beach House Library,” as someone cleverly wrote on the door. Disregarding the hundreds of books layering the floors, the entire structure is full of furniture and clutter from many years past. A row of four old theatre seats is bolted to a floor covered in novels ranging from Huckleberry Finn to Herman Wouk’s War and Remembrance, which I also spotted at sister fortress Fort Totten.
What’s unusual about Fort Tilden is that there are no plaques outlining the historic significance. There were also no signs pointing me to the batteries. But trekking the scattered trails and haphazardly stumbling upon them added a dimension of discovery that made for a more genuine and overall fun experience. Next time you have a beach day in Breezy Point, hit the trails of Fort Tilden if you’re up for it. Just be warned—there’s occasionally an old man-thonged dude getting his tan on right by one of the fort’s best destinations; Battery Harris East. It’s not only cool to look at, but climb the staircase to the top and you’ll have a full panoramic view. In the immediate, countless low-laying trees surround you. Past them, the Atlantic Ocean is to the south, and to the north off in the distance, past Dead Horse Bay and the entire length of Brooklyn, is the Manhattan skyline. It makes up the tiniest piece of the view, but if you go at the right time of the day, the New York Life Building and its 25,000 gold-leaf tiles form a blinding spec on the horizon.