Fort Wetherill History (1972)

Fort Wetherill State Park, on the Island of Conanicut (Jamestown), situated upon 100 foot high granite cliffs across the water from Fort Adams State Park, is a former coastal defense battery and training camp. Comprised of 61.5 acres, it was formally acquired by the State of Rhode Island from the United States in 1972. Its history as a military site dates back to the American Revolution. As a prominent overlook to the East or Middle passage of Narragansett Bay, it has been a favorite site for viewing Tall Ship events and America’s Cup races.

The military story of the site began with an effort by the American colonists to fortify it to prevent British attacks on Newport at the outbreak of the Revolution. The battery here to be known as the Dumpling Rocks Battery was captured before it could go into effect. In December of 1776, the British captured Jamestown along with Newport. The British retained control of the lower Bay, except for a brief interlude in August of 1778, until 1779. During the Battle of Rhode Island, the troops of the French fleet occupied Jamestown.

The location of the first permanent fortification at the southeastern end of Jamestown went atop odd-shaped outcroppings, called the Dumplings. Fort Dumpling, a defensive installation, built here in 1799-1800, was a round, Martell-style, fortified tower. Its purpose was to support Fort Adams blocking enemy ships from entering Newport Harbor. It was never really used and in the 19th century and became a stabilized ruin after gunners at Fort Adams used it for target practice. Fort Dumpling remained a romantic image that appeared on countless artist’s canvases and in dozens of picturesque prints, almost rivaling the other popular icon of the day, the Newport Viking Tower made famous by Longfellow’s poem. Unceremoniously, what remained of Fort Dumpling was blown up in 1898 to make way for more modern defenses. In 1885, Congress had directed the Secretary of War, William C. Endicott to draw up plans for new coastal defenses all along the Atlantic seaboard.

With the outbreak of the Spanish American War in 1898, and with the growing importance of Newport to the U.S. Navy, the property was enlarged for new gun emplacements as part of the Endicott Defense system. This tied Jamestown to other defensive locations around the lower bay. In 1900 Fort Dumpling became Fort Wetherill in honor of Captain Alexander M. Wetherill who died at San Juan Hill in Cuba. His family was area residents. The new 12 inch, 10 inch, disappearing rifles and their mounts were installed in 1905 and 1906.

Endicott batteries, as described by military historians “were designed for two or three weapons, each gun having a separate platform protected on three sides by concrete walls 15 to 20 feet thick. These massive structures were further protected on the exterior by parapets of sand and dirt 40 or more feet thick. Vegetation was planted so that the mounds would blend with the natural terrain. Located below and adjacent to the gun platforms were offices, plotting rooms, communication equipment, and ammunition vaults with mechanical hoists for moving powder and shells.” Seven separate batteries like these were located at Fort Wetherill.

In 1940, just prior to the United States’ entry into World War II, new construction began at Fort Wetherill and nearby Fort Getty. Managing the site were units of the 243rd Coast Artillery, based at Newport’s Fort Adams. The barracks installed here at that time could accommodate 1,200 men. The training which occurred at Wetherill during this period included artillery spotting, signaling, and observation. While the Endicott defenses were the most modern for the period of the Spanish American War and World War I, they were not suitable by the Second World War and the age of air power. Fortunately, the revamped facilities were never put to the test. Part of Wetherill’s responsibilities included caring for the mine fields and submarine nets between Jamestown and Newport. After the war, as was the case of the interwar years, Wetherill was placed under a caretaker status. Guns were removed and by 1970 the land was put on the Federal government’s list of surplus facilities. Wetherill became one of several properties acquired by the State of Rhode Island for open space and recreational uses.

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