Family fun at the fort
Fort Wetherill lies about 2.5 miles north of the tip of Beavertail, opposite Mackerel Cove and overlooking our namesake, Kettlebottom Rock. Colonists during the Revolutionary War built earthworks batteries atop the 100-foot high granite cliffs, hoping to provide cannon defenses against seagoing vessels attempting to enter the East Passage.
The site – known then as Battery on Dumpling Rock – was overtook by the British without a shot, improved upon, and renamed Fort Dumpling Rock. In August 1778, with French warships entering the bay, the British destroyed their fortification and threw their heavier guns into the sea, returning only after the Battle of Rhode Island.
They once again abandoned the fort in October 1779 without explanation, after which the French occupied and rebuilt fortifi cations. After the revolution, circa 1800, French Maj. Louis Tousard oversaw construction of Fort Adams in Newport and a new Fort Dumpling, also known as Fort Louis, in honor of the king of France.
It never saw action and was all but abandoned until 1899, when the Spanish-American War prompted the United States to buy more property. They constructed an expanded complex, which was completed by 1906 with several “disappearing” 12- inch guns. By 1900, the fort had also been renamed Fort Wetherill after Capt. Alexander M. Wetherill, who fell leading his men at the Battle of San Juan Hill, a decisive Spanish-American War battle waged in Cuba.
It was fully garrisoned until the end of World War I, at which time it was placed on caretaker status and the heavy guns were moved and stored at Fort Adams. When World War II began, the fort was reinstated, its guns replaced, new barracks built, and 1,200 men of the 243rd Regiment garrisoned there. The fort saw no action and, apart from a German POW “reeducation” and indoctrination center through 1946, has been of no consequence since. The guns were sold as scrap shortly thereafter and the site quickly fell into disrepair.
The U.S. State Department dropped jurisdiction over the now 62-acre site in 1960, but it stayed under federal jurisdiction until Aug. 16, 1972, when it was transferred to the state of Rhode Island. Visitors to Fort Wetherill State Park will find many looping roads among open fields. They will also find dozens of walking trails, many of which afford incredible seaward views, awesome hidden coves, and dramatic plunging cliffs that made the site so desirable for coastal defense.
Make sure to wear appropriate footwear if you want to explore these trails as some of them are quite rugged and border high cliffs; improper footwear could lead to dangerous situations. If you would like to explore the fortifications, there are several bunker complexes, the largest of which is at the west end of the park. There is also a lookout tower atop the hill near the boat launch ramp and some interesting bunkers just past the Department of Environmental Management building at the east end of the park.
It is strictly at your own risk and proper footwear and a good flashlight are also recommended. Unless you’re willing to stick to the road and fields, it would be a good idea to explore the area before bringing children or pets along, in order to find which trails offer a good walk with little risk of a bad fall.
For those people looking for a marine adventure, scuba diving and snorkeling are outstanding. Due to southerly open ocean exposure, the water tends to be clear and you’ll find an abundance of crabs and lobster and such fishes as tautog, striped bass, fluke, scup, cunner, and a host of smaller fishes, including tropical species during late summer and fall.
There is also a protected boat launch ramp toward the east end of the park, allowing quick access to fishing hotspots such as Beavertail, Mackerel Cove, Kettlebottom Rock or Brenton Reef. Best of all, there are currently no fees to enter the park and use the facilities.
Finding adventure at Fort Wetherill is as easy as lacing up the hiking shoes and hitting the trails, grabbing a flashlight to explore the bunker complexes, or grabbing a mask and snorkel to explore the sea. The site is also popular for people looking for the thrill of cliff diving, though several fatalities in the past few years prove experience is a defi- nite prerequisite. For family fun, the park offers large fields, picnic areas, and quiet beaches, tucked into the hidden coves and protected from most wave action. For a small park so close to home, Fort Wetherill is hard to beat.
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