2012-10-11 / News

Jamestown Historical Society 100 years: Endicott fortifications


When Grover Cleveland became president in March 1885, he directed Secretary of War William Endicott to study the defense needs of the country. The Endicott Board, reporting a year later, found the country’s greatest weakness to be exposure to naval attack, and Narragansett Bay was among the 11 ports given priority for construction of new fortifications. Jamestown was the site of three new forts, which as World War I approached, were home to approximately 800 soldiers.

At the beginning of the period, the federal government already owned two, almost abandoned, military outposts in Jamestown – the Civil War post on Dutch Island and Fort Dumpling.

The Dutch Island post was, according to the Providence Sunday Journal in September 1889, occupied only by Ordinance Sergeant B.F. Morrell and his family. As the sole representative of the U.S. Army, Morrell guarded the remains of the Camp Bailey batteries built between 1863 and 1875.

The ferry from Jamestown used to stop at Fort Greble on Dutch Island on its way across the West Passage. Barracks at the fort were built to house more than 300 men. 
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE JAMESTOWN HISTORICAL SOCIETY The ferry from Jamestown used to stop at Fort Greble on Dutch Island on its way across the West Passage. Barracks at the fort were built to house more than 300 men. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE JAMESTOWN HISTORICAL SOCIETY Refit of the post, now called Fort Greble, began in 1897 when Battery Hale, with three 10-inch disappearing guns, was constructed in the center of the island. (Disappearing guns are weapons mounted on carriages that swung down below the battlements for reloading.) Batteries Mitchell, Sedgwick and Ogden followed.

Barracks were built to house more than 300 enlisted men. Offi cers and their families lived in attractive single or duplex homes. The base had a commissary and a hospital.

Supplying potable water to such a large complex was a daunting task. Shallow wells were brackish, and water pumped from a deep well had to be stored in cisterns. Pipes were laid to carry water beneath the bay from Saunderstown. Stillman Saunders, a competitor of the Jamestown & Newport Ferry Company, built a ferry for the West Passage run with specialized water-carrying tanks. It wasn’t enough. Ice on the West Passage blocked the ferry during severe winters, and in the winter of 1917 the water pipes from Saunderstown froze.

The impact of Fort Greble on town life is hard to distinguish from the impact of concurrent military buildup, with one notable exception: Dr. Arthur M. Mendenhall, a doctor who learned about the island while he was stationed at Fort Greble. He established a practice in Jamestown in 1911 – he was only the second general practitioner to live full time on the island.

On the east side of Conanicut Island stood Jamestown’s second unmanned fort – Fort Dumpling. The federal government had built the elliptical stone tower in 1799. It was 108 feet long and 81 feet wide, with walls between 12 and 24 feet high depending on the contours of the rock beneath. It was never armed.

The stone tower had an unparalleled view of Newport and the lower bay, and for many years it was a popular place to picnic. Picnic there could be dangerous since soldiers at Fort Adams targeted the Fort Dumpling tower for both artillery and rifle practice. After a woman was wounded during a rifle drill, the target practice was stopped and the fort was placed off limits. But without guards to enforce the prohibition, picnickers, fishermen and campers continued to come.

In 1890, Congress authorized the building of a modern fort that would encompass the Fort Dumpling site. The government condemned land surrounding the old fort, in the process acquiring – and later razing – three large summer houses, including those of William Trost Richards, a well-known artist, and Charles Wharton, whose son later built Clingstone. The Fort Dumpling tower was blown up in 1898.

Construction of the 61-acre fortifi cation began in 1902 and continued through 1907. The new fort was named for a summer Jamestowner, Captain Alexander M. Wetherill, U. S. Infantry, who was killed during the Spanish-American War. The artillery installed was larger and more powerful than that at Fort Greble, including seven batteries and four 12-inch guns, two with disappearing mounts.

The United States government acquired the land for Fort Getty by condemnation in 1900. According to the Newport Journal, “The lands [were] the property of Benjamin S. Cottrell. A judgment was entered for $60,000 for the owner of the land.”

Fort Getty, only about half the size of Fort Greble – which it faced across the intervening West Passage and Dutch Island harbor – was the smallest of the early 20th century forts. The construction of its three batteries began in 1901 and continued through 1905.

The post itself was small: only one 10-man barracks and one storehouse were built.

One other military installation was built in the years leading up to the first World War – although not a part of the Endicott coastal defense fortifications. On Prospect Hill, above the 1776 battery, the army dug six in-ground observation posts. Two to four soldiers assigned to each station used sighting instruments to take bearings on targets, which were communicated to the plotting rooms of gun batteries at forts around the bay.

Aerial combat, introduced in World War I and perfected in the 1920s and 1930s, meant that all the original armaments at the Jamestown forts were obsolete long before the beginning of World War II. Although the old forts continued to be used for training during the war and for re-education of German prisoners of war in 1945, new military installations – Fort Burnside and Harbor Entrance Control Post at Beavertail. and the Navy’s amphibious air and torpedo testing stations on Gould Island – contributed more directly to the war effort.

All military installations of Jamestown, except the naval torpedo station and firing pier at the north end of Gould Island, were abandoned after the war and are now state or town parks.

This is the 11th in a series of articles chronicling the history of Jamestown in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Jamestown Historical Society.

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