In 1917, when the United States entered a distant war half a world away in Europe, two large forts were constructed in New York City with one purpose in mind – to defend the homeland against potential attack.
Fort Totten and Fort Tilden were built at opposite ends of the borough of Queens. While the former contains some abandoned structures and the impressive Officer’s Club (top left and right), Fort Tilden, on the Rockaway Peninsula, remains largely untouched and overgrown, a draw for wildlife enthusiasts and urban explorers alike.
(Lower image of the New York Navy Yard released into public domain)
Located in an isolated beauty spot guarding the Atlantic Ocean, Fort Tilden was a coastal artillery protector with cannons to match the range of any battleship of the day. In the event of an attempted invasion, the guns would rumble into action to suppress the threat far out to sea before it could knock out New York’s communications, manufacturing and shipbuilding (above) infrastructure.
(Image released into the public domain)
Temporary military installations at the site date as far back as the War of 1812. Brought to an end by the Treaty of Ghent in 1814, news travelled slowly in those days and fighting raged for two more months, during which time the British were crushed. Modern warfare demanded that a permanent base should be established around the time of World War One, with the adjoining Naval Air Station Rockaway (above), departure point of the first transatlantic flight, constructed adjacent to Fort Tilden.
By 1924, Fort Tilden’s increased firepower came in the form of two massive 16-inch cannon known together as Battery Harris. Initially placed out in the open, these guns could rotate a full 360 degrees and catapult a shell an awe-inspiring 28 miles. This meant they could reach Long Island Sound, although their primary brief was to prevent an attack from east and west.
At the outset of World War Two in 1939, thick concrete was poured over the battery. This would prevent the guns from being bombed during an air attack. But more importantly, it meant they couldn’t be turned on New York City should the enemy successfully capture Fort Tilden.
The base has since found its way onto the National Register of Historic Places. Wooden steps have been fitted to the side of Battery Harris East, offering visitors commanding views of the Atlantic, New York Harbor and the Marine Parkway Bridge set against the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline.
(Image (top right) released into public domain)
Fort Tilden – named after Samuel J. Tilden, one-term governor of New York State and Democratic Presidential candidate in 1876 – ended its military days in the 1970s as a Nike Hercules and Nike Ajax missile site. A reminder of this duty stands at base’s front entrance in the form of a decommissioned Nike missile, outside the former Ryan Visitor Center, which has since relocated to the Bathhouse at Jacob Riis Park.
Finding and Exploring the Abandoned Base
Fort Tilden is located on the Rockaway Peninsula, a narrow spike of land belonging to Queens, despite offering natural shelter to the waters off the south side of Brooklyn, opposite Floyd Bennet Field. If you’re using public transport, take the 2 train to Brooklyn College (last stop), then the Q35 bus to an unnamed stop across the Marine Parkway Bridge. Ask the driver for Fort Tilden and he or she will drop you off close to the front gate. Walk west briefly, then turn left (across Rockaway Point Blvd) onto Beach 169th Street.
After turning into Beach 169th, the scene suddenly takes on an “abandoned military” flavour. The road is concrete, overgrown at the edges and weeds protruding from gaps in the paving. Turning right through the main gate, the buildings are typical military fare, largely single storey structures dotted randomly about the site.
A pleasant beach skirts the south side of Fort Tilden, with shallow sand dunes that give way to the abandoned complex. A variety of derelict buildings can be seen along the perimeter track that leads west across the peninsula, including workshops to storage warehouses.
Cutting “inland” off the perimeter track in seach of the much coveted Battery Harris East, the winding path through the undergrowth skirts forgotten structures almost completely covered by sand, from brick buildings to what appear to be concrete missile launch pads. More intact buildings hide amid dense greenery. Battery Harris finally emerges from the trees and bushes, although reaching it can be challenging (beware poison ivy).
Up close and personal, the gun battery is vast. The concrete canopy where one of the powerful 16 inch guns once stood hangs over a cavernous opening in the man-made hillside. Heavy iron gates prevent entry (or not, if the graffiti is anything to go by) to the subterranean chambers, which branch off to the right and left into the menacing bowels of Battery Harris.
From here, a wider road that once accomodated the Fort Tilden Railway winds back to the main entrance of the base. The original railway track – which connected the gun batteries with a network of ammunition storehouses within the fort (above) – can still be seen sunk into the concrete at various points along the road.
Amid the many foundations and abandoned buildings dispersed within Fort Tilden’s undergrowth can be found the concrete footings of a Nike missile launch site (top) and a long-demolished blimp airship hangar (bottom). More information about these installations is available here.
Despite Fort Tilden’s dilapidated condition, an exploration of the area on foot will uncover a network of overgrown pathways interspersed with an assortment of hidden buildings. But be sure to take a look from the air too, as myriad foundations exist amid and beneath the undergrowth – all of them belonging to buildings that have played their part in definding this coastline against an attack which thankfully never came. (Read more about Fort Tilden in the New York Times)
(Unless otherwise credited, all images are by the author and Vani, ably assisted by Camille.)