There are few lonelier places on earth than a sea fort, especially those manned by only a handful of people at a time. Sea forts have long served as defensive positions, as lighthouses, and as early warning stations; while built, they’re out of necessity prime, peak examples of state-of-the-art engineering. As they age, though, they’re often more trouble than they’re worth to repair, and are left to the elements. This article explores 10 abandoned and repurposed sea forts, anti-submarine towers and other offshore military platforms.
10. Solent Forts, England
The Solent Forts were also known as Palmerston’s Follies. They were built in the late 1800s off the coast of Portsmouth as part of England’s maritime defense network. At the time of their conception, Louis Napoleon was coming to power and emerging not only as Emperor Napoleon III, but also taking the head of a massive army. The government, understandably concerned, commissioned the four forts as early defense.
No Man’s Land, St. Helens (above), Spitbank and Horse-Sands were constructed, but were incredibly short-lived. A fifth fort, Ryde Sand, wasn’t even completed when the area was found to be too unstable to safely support the fort.
Advances in steam power and other technologies made it difficult to keep the forts updated to the point where they were a viable defense system. By the time they were completed, the original threat that they had been built to combat was done. They were used through World War Two mainly as signal and warning facilities, as they weren’t built for the heavy artillery that a fully armed fort would require. They were also used for the seizure of French ships off the coast, but they were ultimately decommissioned in 1956.
Recently, the forts are being given new life. The Horse-Sands Fort is being remodeled and restored to its original condition, with plans to open it as a museum. Spitbank is being converted into a luxury hotel, and No Man’s is getting a face-lift and being turned into a banquet facility, dining hall, spa and cabaret.
9. Maunsell Sea Forts, England
The Maunsell Sea Forts were named for their designer, Guy Maunsell, and they were a crucial part of Britain’s defense network during World War Two. Seven forts – four naval and three army – were built in the Thames estuary, and several can still be seen on the horizon today.
The Army sea forts were a series of seven towers, all connected by walkways to a central control tower. Built beginning in 1942 as anti-aircraft defense, the forts were armed with both gun and searchlight towers. Constructed on land and floated out to sea where they were installed, they were a massive success, and plans were drafted to build more of the towers. Those plans were scrapped in 1952, however, although the towers are still considered among the most successful of the early ancestors of today’s off-shore structures.
Of the three Army forts – Shivering Sands (top), Red Sands (above) and Nore – only two are still standing after the collapse of Nore begun by a 1953 storm that damaged the structure and compromised its integrity; it was later hit by a ship, and ultimately dismantled after the deaths of four civilian caretakers.
(Image: via subterrain.org.uk, cc-nc-sa-4.0)
The naval forts had two main supports and anti-aircraft guns mounted on the top. Rough Sands, Sunk Head, Tongue Sands and Knock John were all abandoned by the end of the 1940s, but had a brief – and rather weird – period of occupation after that. From 1965 to 1967, the sea forts were, perhaps appropriately, the home of pirate radio stations. The stations, which originally started in fishing boats, were headquartered on all four of the otherwise abandoned naval towers – after the Marine Broadcasting Act was passed, they were replaced by Radio 1 and Radio 2.
(Image: via subterrain.org.uk, cc-nc-sa-4.0)
Knock John is still in an incredibly good state today. Its guns were only removed in 1992, and all ladders have also been removed from the fort, making it impossible to board – largely due to the idea that it might have been used for smuggling. Originally, there were 49 sea forts planned for construction on the River Thames, and another 38 on the Mersey.
8. Texas Towers, United States
(Image: via Wikimapia)
Contrary to what their name implies, the Texas Towers were quite a good way away from Texas. Built off the North Atlantic seaboard of the United States, they were given their name because of their resemblance to the oil rigs of the Gulf of Mexico. The towers, built in the late 1950s, were part of a defense network designed to detect incoming hostiles during the Cold War. Five towers were originally planned, but only three were built – and one proved deadly.
Each of the distinctive, triangular structures cost about $21 million to build and required a crew of 50 men. Towers 2 and 3 (below) were off the coast of Nantucket and Boston, while the ill-fated Tower 4 was set 75 miles off the coast east of Barnegat Inlet, New Jersey.
(Image: US Air Force, public domain)
While 2 and 3 were anchored in relatively stable ground, Tower 4 (below) was plagued with problems from the start. Construction crews hadn’t been prepared for the deep, unstable mud that was at the location of the 4th tower. Built anyway, it was subjected to numerous repairs and attempts to stabilize the structure, which would constantly move with even everyday winds and waves.
(Image: NOAA, public domain)
Nicknamed Old Shaky by the crews who worked on it, they were also warned not to try to shave with a straight razor or bare blade, should a sudden gust of wind make the tower shake and cause their hand to slip. In the winter of 1960, emergency repairs were started to try to salvage the tower, but it collapsed on January 14, 1961. All 28 people aboard were killed. The other two towers didn’t fare too much better, and were abandoned in the early 1960s after suffering a series of problems related to the wear and tear of the elements.
7. Fort Boyard, France
Fort Boyard isn’t technically abandoned anymore; it’s notable for having perhaps one of the most bizarre fates of a repurposed structure, as the setting of a television challenge show that has the same name. That doesn’t make the history of the fort any less amazing, though.
Located off the coast of France, the original plans for the fort were developed in the 17th century by Louis XIV. The technology of the time wasn’t quite up to the standards that his plans required, though, and it wasn’t actually begun until another of history’s infamous rulers came to power – Napoleon. Construction on the fort finally began in the early 1800s, but it ended up taking more than 50 years for construction crews to finish. The storms that raged off the coast of France meant that they were working in perpetually dangerous conditions, and by the time it was built, it was already obsolete. New weapons technologies meant that the fort had outlived its usefulness before it was ever completed in 1859.
After its completion, it was turned into a prison until its eventual abandonment in 1913. The fort changed hands several more times, but it sat abandoned for decades, nothing ever done with it – and obsolete or not, the fort continued to provide is ability to withstand the rough seas and violent storms that ravaged the area. It was only relatively recently that the fort fell into the hands of a creative production company who turned the old prison, which took more than 2 centuries to be realized from blueprints to opening, in the the grand setting for a television show.
6. Fort Carroll, United States
(Image: Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)
Fort Carroll was built on an artificial island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, conceived as a defensive structure protecting Baltimore, Maryland. Construction began in 1847 and it wasn’t finished until 1900. Its usefulness was short-lived, though, and the planned defensive structure had already been rendered all but obsolete by advancements in warfare. Changes to the blueprints and plans were made and the fort was renovated even as it was being built but ultimately, it was abandoned.
The fort sits on a six-sided island, and covers almost 4 acres. Now privately owned, there has been a series of suggestions made for its re-purposing, including a casino and resort. Owners have long been campaigning to get the island and its fort on a register of historic places, which will help not only preserve it, but secure funds to help with renovations and restorations. There’s no denying that it’s a beautiful, historic structure, but the problem comes in with its history.
The history of the fort is mainly in being built and rebuilt and remodeled; there are no major battles, no colorful characters, no ghost stories. The fort, in its abandoned state, has also been taken over by local birds as nesting grounds, meaning that any plans to renovate the fort into something else would require the destruction of the birds’ habitat – which is unlikely to pass any kind of government approval processes.
5. Brehon Tower, Channel Islands
The first structure to be built on Brehon Island was an obelisk in 1744. Meant to be a sea marker and navigational aid, the obelisk ended up a rather lonely structure that was all but useless as a marker of any sort. In order to increase the visibility of the structure, the obelisk was replaced by a 40-foot-tall tower in 1824.
The tower and the islands were the subject of renewed attention in the middle of the 19th century. The Channel Islands were high on the list of strategically important locations to both England and France, and with the threat of war, it was decided that the site of the obelisk would be expanded into a fort. Work on the current Brehon Tower started in 1854, and by the time it was completed two years later the still small fort was three floors with living quarters for a small garrison and a gun platform on the roof.
The tower remained in use through both World War I and World War Two, when it was manned by occupying German forces. Equipped with an anti-aircraft gun, it was responsible for bringing down several aircraft attempting to cross the Channel. After the war, the tower was emptied of all weapons and ammunition, and now its only occupants are sea birds.
4. Padmadurg, India
(Image: Shiv Chhatrapati)
Today, the fort of Padmadurg sits in ruins. It’s one of five sea forts built by Chhatraparti Shivaji Maharaj, and in spite of being one of India’s great historical treasures, it’s falling farther and farther into disrepair.
(Image: Shiv Chhatrapati)
The fort was originally constructed in 1676; also known as the Kasa fort, it was built for the sole purpose of conquering another nearby fort – Janjira. The massive maritime structure sprawls over nine acres, and while it can still be seen from shore, it hasn’t been open to the public in some time due to the massive levels of deterioration. Damage to the fort began during its construction, when it was under attack even as it was being built.
(Image: Shiv Chhatrapati)
Even those who have permission to visit the fort are restricted to certain areas; in its most recent history, the fort was a stopover point for smugglers running drugs through the area.
While there are plans to restore the fort, lack of funds to do so has largely put plans on hold. Those who are working in support of restoration cite not only the historical importance of the structure, but also the architectural beauty that’s slowly crumbling away.
3. Nab Tower, England
Nab Tower is an eerie, abandoned mistake of sorts. In 1918, ships off England’s coast were being plagued by German U-Boats. In an attempt to secure English waters near Southampton and Portsmouth, a plan was put in place to build a line of anti-submarine towers and connect them with netting, effectively blockading the English Channel. Only one – Nab Tower – was built before the war ended; not only was there no more need for the towers, but there really wasn’t any use to only one in the proposed chain.
(Image: Trinity House)
The tower had been built so it was possible to tow it, a feature that saved the life of the lonely tower. It was decided that it would be used as a navigational aid and lighthouse, towed to it final location in 1920. The bottom part of the tower was flooded, sinking it considerably – but not entirely. Problems with the tower’s sinking means that it lists a little bit to one side, but it was still home to lighthouse keepers for decades.
Lighthouse keepers lived on Nab Tower for two months at a time, and at Christmas, whoever was pulling long, lonely duty at the time would be visited by local lifeboats bearing presents donated by the citizens of Bembridge. The long tradition of the lighthouse keepers was stopped in 1983, when the light was replaced with an automated system. The tower got a further upgrade in 1995, when it was converted to solar power. In 2013, a large portion of the tower’s upper levels was removed, shortening it considerably in a move deemed necessary to keep the tower safe. It still serves as a lighthouse.
2. Humber Forts, England
In 1915, two forts were built to defend the Humber estuary through the escalating conflicts of World War I. Haile Sand Fort and Bull Sands Fort opened in 1917 and 1919, built on massive concrete foundations with circular walls and steel plating.
The forts, which had been to designed to include all the living facilities needed for the men stationed there, were updated during World War Two with more artillery. At the time of their construction, they were considered engineering marvels; both were based on solid concrete blocks that had been sunk beneath the ocean, forming interlocking piles that were filled with sand. At the height of their use, they were each home to around 200 people.
Throughout World War Two, they were regularly attacked by both enemy aircraft and U-Boats, but the decades-old structures that had been among the elite examples of engineering at the time still proved impenetrable.
The forts were abandoned in 1956. There were a number of different uses put forward for them, but today, Haile Sand stands mostly abandoned, and officially used as a navigational aid.
Bull Sands, however, has been repurposed into something pretty incredible – a detox clinic. It’s been officially renamed Island of Hope, and it’s now destined to become the site of a detox clinic offered by the non-profit charity Streetwise. The facilities have enough room for 240 people at a single time, and its location makes it the perfect place for the isolation and support needed by those recovering from their dependencies on alcohol or drugs.
1. Fort Alexander, Gulf of Finland, Russia
Fort Alexander was built in the middle of the 19th century on an artificial island in the Gulf of Finland. It was officially put into service in 1845, but by 1860 the advance of rifling and artillery technology made the fort obsolete. Originally meant as a line of defense for St. Petersburg, the fort was repurposed as a military warehouse and storage facility.
By the turn of the century, the fort had found a new purpose – quarantine. Plague was spread throughout Europe, and epidemics were sweeping through major cities. Now, medical advancements had been keeping up with advancements in warfare and doctors were now understanding how diseases worked – and how they could be combated. Fort Alexander was repurposed into a medical facility and plague research institute.
The fort became home to researchers and doctors as well as a handful of military men left behind. It was also the home to a menagerie of animals used for testing vaccinations – from horses and camels to rats and guinea pigs. Scientists worked on creating the cure for diseases like cholera and the bubonic plague, and, tragically, more than once the isolation of the fort proved useful as some of the scientists working there ultimately contracted the diseases they were trying to cure. Because of the delicacy – and potential for disaster – of the diseases and viruses they were working with, security was just as tight as it had been when it was a military installation; there are records of bodies of the researchers being burned in the fort’s furnaces after they contracted various diseases.
(Image: Армонд, public domain)
Fort Alexander was a medical research facility until 1917, when it was emptied of all its medical equipment. It’s been largely abandoned ever since, although it’s the site of the occasional concert, party, or music festival.