... Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down...
Robert Frost, "Mending Wall"
Bull Point has been utilized for defense purposes dating back to the Revolutionary War, when earthen fortifications were constructed to protect Newport from British forces. The site is largely composed of granite bedrock, which is exposed at water's edge as a series of gnarled quartz-veined cliffs and forms an effective division between the ocean and the soil and scrub brush and larger trees several hundred yards inland. Due to the marine environment, the site supports only the hardier species of indigenous wildflowers, scrub brush and briars. The same can be said for human beings, who are punished by the ever-present winds and deep, gray, numbing cold of winter; during fall and spring seasons, the conditions are merely harsh. Yet all of this softens in the warm light and relative stillness of the summer months, when the sense of space surrounding the site seems to expand to include the larger scale of Rhode Island Sound.
The present military structures were completed in 1906 and are known as "Endicott Period" batteries in recognition of former Secretary of War William C. Endicott, who headed the study committee on coastal defenses authorized by Congress in 1885. As a result of its report, construction began on a comprehensive coastal defense system for the protection of naval shore installations on both coasts, of which Fort Wetherill was a part. The fort was named in honor of Captain Alexander M. Wetherill, U.S. Cavalry, killed in action at San Juan, Cuba in 1898. At the time of their construction, these batteries represented the best currently available military technology. Each consisted of two to three artillery pieces at the upper level, shielded from the ocean side by fifteen- to twenty-foot thick reinforced-concrete ramparts, and further protected by forty-foot deep sand berms camouflaged with earth and shrubs. A typical fort had several batteries constructed in close proximity to each other; in the case of Fort Wetherill, seven batteries were arrayed along its 2/3-mile coastal frontage. The artillery consisted of rifles from 3" to 12" bore, with ranges of up to 16 miles. At the lower level were ammunition magazines, hoists, offices, communications and plotting rooms. Double walls were used between these lower chambers; these isolated the ammunition in the magazines from the concussive shocks of operations, and afforded an additional layer of integrity. All interior spaces were vented to above, and appropriate rooms were equipped with small fireplaces. Overhead rails provided the means to transport ammunition to mechanical hoists; from there it was raised to the gun platform level. Numerous fire control stations supported the batteries by translating visual sightings of enemy positions into headings and elevations for artillery fire. While the stations near the batteries took the form of bunkers, those distributed within civilian areas around the Bay were built to resemble cottages or barn silos. Other structures within the military complex were barracks and a regimental chapel. After the conclusion of WW II, these wooden structures were relocated elsewhere on the island to serve new uses.
By the end of World War I, these fortifications had become obsolete. First among these reasons was a vulnerability to overhead attack; these fortifications were designed to defend against naval attack twenty years before the Wright Brothers' first airplane flight in 1903. No one could have predicted at that time that airplanes not only would become instruments of war but that they would be based onboard ship. Thus, while significant protection was provided from incoming surface fire at a low angle, the artillery and associated gun platforms were completely open to above. Moreover, batteries of this design carved distinct geometric forms into the landscape, making them susceptible to aerial observation by which their locations could be pinpointed, despite the use of camouflage netting. This was even more of a drawback because a stationary target was much easier to attack since it could not slip away under the cover of darkness, fog or bad weather. Then, there was the matter of firepower. The 12" rifles were no match in range for the 16" guns which were being installed in capital warships by the beginning of World War I. These had a range of up to 26 miles, the practical effect of which, in battle, was that an enemy ship could stand just outside the 16 mile range of the coastal defenses, and rain down destruction in the form of 2,000 lb. explosive shells. To address these and other shortcomings, construction of Forts Greene and Hamilton were begun in the area during WW II; these provided six feet of solid concrete overhead protection for two long-range 16" guns apiece with a range of 26 miles. Fort Greene was completed, but construction of Fort Hamilton was discontinued in 1943 when an invasion by sea became increasingly unlikely. During this time, only four of the seven Wetherill batteries were reactivated; the armament for the other three had been removed earlier. While documentation shows that the fort was operational as late as May 1945, it is likely that it was closed under a general reorganization of Bay defense forces later that year.
The Long Wait
Neither Fort Wetherill nor any other fort on either coast ever saw direct hostile action in the forty-year span of their service. During their forty-year service life, the sheer distances across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans may have been the most potent and decisive deterrents to foreign attack. On the other hand, one might effectively argue with military logic that this coastal defense system so contributed a measure of deterrence that no attempt was ever made to breach it. Moreover, while these batteries would have been overmatched against a major assault force employing long-distance weaponry during the period including the two world wars, they would have been effective against attacks from smaller surface operations. These batteries provided an extra margin of defensive security in areas of strategic military importance, and exceeded their design goals with a record of no attacks or loss of life on American soil. For this and other reasons, the coastal defense forces deserve recognition for their training and vigilance as significant contributions to this country's war efforts during these years.
The major threats to the eastern coastal defenses, as it turned out, were German submarines. Between 1942 and 1945, twelve merchant marine ships were sunk by U-boat attack; the last of these occurring within view of Fort Wetherill. On May 4, 1945, in acknowledging the imminent end of the war in Europe, the German naval command issued radio orders for its forces to cease hostilities and return to port. On that day, the German submarine U-853 was operating near Point Judith; whether it received these orders is not known. The next day, it torpedoed and sank the collier ship Black Star four miles off Point Judith with the loss of 12 crew. The submarine proceeded along an escape route in the deeper waters to the south, but was intercepted by US naval forces, targeted on sonar and destroyed by successive depth charge and hedgehog attacks. The U-853, with the remains of its crew, now lies in 145 feet of water seven miles east of Block Island, twenty miles due south of Fort Wetherill.
The Fortifications Today
The batteries exist currently as a set of monolithic ruins within the former military reservation, now a state park. Most of the concrete stairs are in a state of advanced deterioration, and few of the railings remain. Depending on one's inclinations, climbing over these structures can be dangerous or exciting. Visitors have contributed their sense of appropriate decor to the site with prismatic glint of broken glass, neon splotches from paint bullets used in combat games, and free-flowing traces of graffiti. All of this adds a sense of unease, if not danger, to the brutal character of the massive concrete forms. Moreover, Wetherill seems to represent for a large proportion of visitors a fringe condition where proscriptive laws cease to apply. All vestiges of military discipline have vanished, and it has devolved into a bulletin board and stage set for unsavory posturing. There have been attempts to seal off the interiors with steel plates, but these are pried off as fast as they can be erected. Several years ago, there were attempts to seal the openings with bulldozers and backfill, but numerous openings remain. Fort Getty, on a relatively flat site owned by the Town of Jamestown on the southeast side of Conanicut Island, was completely buried by this method in 1979. Whether for political reasons related to its status as state-owned park, or the prohibitive expense of placing twenty thousand cubic yards of fill, this has not been carried out at Wetherill. In the meantime, the partial backfill measures to date have only served to ratchet up the fort's danger quotient and thus its attraction for would-be archeologists, while eliminating light, ventilation and the majority of exits from the lower level. To the extent that they represent ongoing health hazards to the public, they are the nineteenth century precedents of plutonium.
Military activities carry risks of significant physical harm; military installations reflect this risk, which make them inherently difficult to reuse as a visitor destination. At Wetherill, the original metal guardrails have long since deteriorated, elevating the risk of a fall even further. At other state parks with similar conditions, such as Fort Adams, dangerous areas are either reasonably blocked off from public access or back filled to remove the hazard. In addition, access to Fort Adams, across the East Passage from Wetherill is permitted only in the context of guided tours. Otherwise, the cliffs at Bull Point represent the most hazardous of site conditions; the author knows people who have used the cliffs as a forty-foot diving platform. Recently, a man was killed there after misjudging the tide and jumping into the shallow surf.
© 2022 Philip S. Wheelock, Jr. AIA