Fort Miles Delaware
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We “discovered” Fort Miles by accident on our recent vacation. We saw a road sign on our last day and a quick visit to Goggle made up our mind. Although they already have a great thing going on here, more displays and equipment are in the works. We missed the tours and the actual museum, as they were not open the day we were there. Still we had plenty to see and do. The park was open though, and we found plenty to keep us interested. There is a $10 charge to get into the state park, and it was worth every dime.
The location is Cape Henlopen State Park, 15099 Cape Henlopen Dr., Lewes, DE 19958. It is pretty easy to find from highway 1 that runs North/South through east coast of Delaware and Maryland. It is about an hour North of Ocean City MD. When you enter the park, bear right to get to Fort Miles and the lookout tower.
There is more than enough history in this area to write a novel, but I’ll try to keep things a bit shorter than that. The fort was built to defend Delaware’s Atlantic coastal waters and Delaware bay. This was (and still is) a very vital shipping area. Funds were designated as early as 1934, although it wasn’t constructed until 1941. The fort was immediately manned with 261st coast artillery battalion. Eventually the fort would be home to as many as 2200-2500 soldiers, from the 21st, 52nd (railroad) and the 198th (Anti-aircraft) coastal artillery units, and the 113th infantry detachment. The primary concern at the time was defending the coast from the Nazi threat during the second World War. The fort open only days before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Although the fort never saw active engagement, 14 ships were sunk off the coast of New Jersey in the first half of 1942, not that far away. There were four batteries built into the sand dunes, and were virtually invisible from the ocean. These included Batteries 118 (Smith), 221 (Herring), 222 (Hunter) and #519, which was still under construction at the time and never formally named. A large minefield was also laid in the waters.
After World War 2 was over, the fort slowed down and served many different roles. It was used as a test site for the Navy’s Bumblebee Ramjet missile, a precursor to the modern surface to air missiles. It became an important post during the cold war, in the 1960’s in was one of eleven sites used to spy on Soviet submarines. Over a hundred miles of cable ran out to sea with attached hydrophones to listen for submarines. These were discontinued in 1981, and the fort itself was declassified in 1991. The fort donated 543 acres to the state of Delaware for use as a park, with more gradually being added over the years.
Between 1939 and 1942, eleven concrete observation (or fire control) towers were constructed along the coast here. These towers were 16 feet in diameter, and ranged between 39’ and 75’ tall. They were constructed of poured & re-enforced concrete, with 12” thick walls. They had several 270 degree ports and a deck on top. These towers were on the lookout for enemy ships and submarines. The worked in pairs- one tower would take an azimuth bearing, as would a second tower. With the distance between the towers already pre-determined, the coordinated were triangulated to gain a fix on the target. This allowed the batteries to direct artillery fire at the target. There is a grassroots movement today to preserve these towers.
On the trail
We chose to park at the #7 observation tower (the observatory). This tower has been restored and is open to the public. Iron steps take you to the top, and offers tremendous views of the area. While it was interesting to visit this tower, I can’t imagine the monotonous hours the men spent scanning the sea looking for enemy vessels. From here we crossed the road to the heart of the site. First off, we saw the cantonments (or barracks), and these were constructed of cement blocks, versus the wood and canvas normally used. Each building housed 32 men. These ones housed the soldiers of battery 519. The walk ways took you to several buildings, and then you start seeing the different artillery Pieces. Each had an informative panel telling you about the piece. Some of the guns we saw were the 3”, 6”, 8”, 16” and the 155 MM. The 8” was rail mounted for easier aiming. The 16” gun is mammoth. The entire cannon weighs in around 135 tons, had a 66’ barrel, and fired a projectile of a ton or more. The range was 24 miles.
From the artillery, we walked to the casemate of Battery 519. Although it was closed the day we were there, it houses the museum and has tours as well. You get some great views of the ocean and the dunes here. We followed a trail down towards the dunes here, and then out to the beach. A mile or so down the beach we came to the bath house and the more popular stretch of beach. Another battery is tucked alongside of the building. Eventually we left the beach and hiked back to the road, and up to the Henlopen ship watching station. Past there we came to cape Henlopen beach, and it had some great views of the Delaware breakwater & Lewes Harbor lights. From here we walked the roads and paths back to the car (parked at observation tower #7).
Plenty of unrestored remnants of Fort Miles can still be seen walking along. We passed the Seaside Nature center. According to the sign out front, they have plenty of activities happening all the time. Definitely worth checking out. Back at the car, we continued south towards Herring point, taking us past Battery Smith and ending at Battery Herring. You can’t get too close to the building, but you still get a good look at the unrestored battery. We drove down to the Cape Henlopen state park fishing pier. The fishermen were having pretty good luck catching large bluefish that day. We totaled about 8 or 9 miles on foot that day. If you are in the area, and enjoy military history, sun, sand and the ocean- you really shouldn’t miss this place.
References & sources
Delaware State Parks- http://www.destateparks.com/park/cape-henlopen/fort-miles/
Fort Miles Historical Association- http://fortmilesha.org/
About the Author
I am a life-long resident of the north country, calling Edwards my home. I have always had a passion for the outdoors, and for local history. I recently started this site to share places that have been part of our local history and heritage. I hope you get a chance to hike some of these trails for yourself, and reflect on the rich history of those that walked here before you. And if not, sit back and experience these from where ever you are right now. Either way, enjoy!
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