The History of Fort Wetherill

Edited by John Duchesneau

(Note - The author has made use of an On-line History of Fort Wetherill from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management's website in preparing this history. He has edited it into a more readable format and made additions and corrections where appropriate.)


Introduction and Summary

Fort Wetherill (sometimes incorrectly called "Fort Weather All") is located in the town of Jamestown, Rhode Island on the eastern shore of Conanicut Island about two miles west from the City of Newport. It served as a coast defense fort from 1901 through 1945 and was one of the largest of the so-called Endicott period forts.

The first fort built on Fort Wetherill's site was erected in the summer of 1776 during the Revolutionary War.

Around 1799 a stone tower, which could have mounted up to ten cannon, was erected on the same site. It was commonly called Fort Dumpling. It was never armed nor garrisoned but was a popular picnic setting and artist's motif during the 19th century.

Work on Fort Wetherill began in 1896. In 1900 the new fort was named in honor of Captain Alexander Wetherill. Captain Wetherill was killed in action on July 1, 1898 at the battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba. Fort Wetherill was active during both the First and Second World Wars but was never engaged in combat.

In 1972 Fort Wetherill became a Rhode Island state park containing about 61 acres. Because of its spectacular views of Newport and the East Passage of Narragansett Bay, Fort Wetherill has been a popular sight for viewing the numerous Tall Ship events and America’s Cup Races. The waters off the park are also popular attractions to divers.


Revolutionary War

The site of Fort Wetherill has always been a perfect site for the defense of Narragansett Bay from a sea attack. This fact was realized and exploited during the Revolutionary War when the citizens of Jamestown erected earthworks on the site. This fortification was called the Battery on Dumpling Rock. The Colonials did not hold it long, however, as the British took the area without firing a shot in November of 1776. During their occupation, the British improved upon the fortification and called it Fort Dumpling Rock. Before leaving Rhode Island on October 2th, 1779, the British destroyed the fortification at Dumpling Rock and threw their larger guns into the sea to prevent their use by the Americans.

The fort saw little action afterward, other than the French rebuilding it during their occupation of Rhode Island from 1780 to 1781. There is no trace remaining today of this first fort.


Fort Dumpling (1799 - 1899)


Fort Dumpling in the Late 1800's

After the Revolution the new federal goverment started a program of fortification to defend major seaports against attack. The resulting fortifications are known as the "First System" of fortification. An extensive study was made of the fortification needs of Newport in 1794 by Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Rochfontaine of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. One of his recommendations was that a fort be built on Dumpling Rock in Jamestown.

Land for the new fort was purchased on November 26th, 1799 and Major Louis Tousard of the Army Corps of Engineers supervised the construction of a new fort on the site. Tousard was a native Frenchman who had served gallantly in the Revolution and lost an arm in the Battle of Rhode Island in 1778. For his heroism he was breveted a lieutenant colonel in the continental army and give a pension. In 1795 he was commissioned a major in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.(Biography of Tousard in French.)

Fort Dumpling was never offcially named. Fort Dumpling is the name which was most usually used. It was sometimes called Fort Louis, allegedly in honor of the King of France. It was also called Fort Brown in honor of Major General Jacob Brown, a hero of the War of 1812, who was the Commanding General of the United States Army from 1815 until his death in 1828.


Fort Dumpling c. 1870's by William Trost Richards
(Click Image for larger view.)
Fort Dumpling was never placed in active service by the Army. Sometime between 1857 and 1859 it was used by Colonel John B. Magruder, the commanding officer of Fort Adams, as a target for his gunners. After the Civil War it was used mostly by artists as a motif and as a setting for picnics.


Construction of Fort Wetherill (1898 - 1903)

In 1885 Secretary of War William C. Endicott appointed a board of Army and Navy officers to study the coast defense needs of the country. Their recommendations were the blueprint for the coast defenses of the country for the next 40 years. The key feature of the plans was to emplace modern, long-range, breech loading cannon at strategic points along the coast. As Narragansett Bay was a major shipping area, it would be fortified under the new system.

The initial plan to defend Narragansett Bay was fairly simple. The bay has two primary entrances - known as the East and West Passages. The West Passage would be covered by a fort on Dutch Island named Fort Greble. The East Passage would be guarded by guns emplaced slightly south of the main structure of Fort Adams on the west side and by emplacements built on the rise of land where Fort Dumpling stood. This position commanded a wide expanse of water and could engage any ships attempting to enter the east passage. This is where the first batteries of Fort Wetherill were built.

The whole area of the initial land purchase was about 26 acres, about 24 of which are purchased at a price agreed upon with the owners. About 2 1/2 acres belonging to Charles Wharton will be condemned, lands and deeds involved--Joseph Wharton, 4 acres; W.T. Richards, 4 acres; Ocean Highland Company, 7 1/3 acres; B.H. Shoemaker, 5 acres; G. Norman Lieber, 2 acres; properties surveyed by Captain J.P.Cotton under direction of the U.S. Engineer Department. (Newport Daily News, Friday, October 16th, 1896.)

Early in 1899, deeds for the lands to be purchased by the government at the Dumplings, for fortification purposes, were drawn and sent to Washington for the consideration of the Secretary of War. After being found satisfactory the purchase money was forwarded to the owners and the purchase was made on May 11th, 1899. The cost to the government was $150,000. Prices varied from $3,700 to $6,500 an acre.

The new fort was named in honor of Captain Alexander Macomb Wetherill by War Department General Order Number 43 dated March 24th, 1900. Captain Wetherill was commissioned a second lieutenant in the 6th Infantry Regiment in 1867. He was killed in the Battle of San Juan in Cuba on July 1st, 1898, during the Spanish American War. His not having risen to a rank higher than Captain after 31 years in the Army was no fault of his own as promotion was very slow in the Army after the Civil War and based strictly on senority. Members of the Wetherill family were summer residents of Jamestown for many years.

After his death, Wetherill's widow paid a personal visit to President McKinley to request that her husband's remains be recovered and returned to the United States. With the president's intervention, Captian Wetherill's body was quickly recovered and interred at Arlington National Cemetery. Mrs. Wetherill also requested that her 20 year old son, also named Alexander Macomb Wetherill, be commissioned in his father's regiment. This request was also granted and young Wetherill went on to serve a career in the Army where he served in the First World War and was promoted to the rank of Colonel. (Source - The Naming of Our Forts by Webster King Wetherill, nephew of Captain Wetherill, in the collections of the Jamestown Philomenian Library.)

In 1899 the federal government purchased additional property and enlarged the fort complex. New gun emplacements were poured to receive twelve inch rifles - the largest produced at that time.

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George Washington Goethals

The early construction of Fort Wetherill was performed under the supervision of Major George Washington Goethals of the Army Corps of Engineers. Goethals was the Newport District Superintendent for the Corps from 1900 until 1903. He is best known for being the project manager for the construction of the Panama canal. Geothals retired from the Army with the rank of Major General.

The progress of the construction can be seen in the following newspaper articles -

"At the Dumplings excavations are being made for the new batteries, the stone taken out being used to fill in at the wharf at Fort Wetherill. The road from Fort Wetherill to the new battery has been graded." (Newport Daily News, Thursday, August 8, 1901.)

"The Schooner Allen, with lumber from Bangor; schooner Burney of New London with coal, and the Gertrude and Helen, with sand, are discharging at the new government wharf at the Dumplings. The stonework of the wharf is now completed, and the filling is about half done. The stonework is capped with Portland cement three feet in width, on which will rest the hard pine caplog. When the wharf is completed it will be one of the best in the section." (Newport Daily News, Wednesday, August 14, 1901.)

"The pile driver from the Newport shipyard is driving new piles about the new government dock at Fort Wetherill." (Newport Daily News, Friday, September 20, 1901)

"Messrs A.H. & Amos Peckham and Allen Head have begun the work of carting to Fox Hill. A load of machinery has been landed at the wharf at Fort Wetherill, consisting of three engines and boilers for hoisting and rails and cars for a railroad. The contract for building the government wharf at Fox Hill will be awarded to Joseph Terry, the lowest bidder for the pile dock, that being decided upon for the present structure. It is to be done in 90 days from September 23rd." (Newport Daily News, Tuesday, September 17, 1901)

"The Barge Alice is discharging a cargo of cement at the Fort Wetherill wharf, for the new batteries at the Dumplings." (Newport Daily News, Tuesday, July 29, 1902)

"Eight carloads of gun carriages for the new fortifications at Fort Wetherill have arrived (in Newport) at the freight depot here. Two 12-inch rifles have already arrived at the new works." (Newport Daily News, Friday, December 13, 1903)


Early Years (1903 - 1917)


12-inch Gun on Barbette Carraige
(Similar to Battery Varnum at Fort Wetherill.)
Photograph is from the Theodor Horydczak collection.

At 2:30 AM Sunday morning July 14th, 1907 the 12-inch guns of Battery Varnum at Fort Wetherill fired (with blanks) on a squadron of Navy ships which was part of a training exercise in which a Rhode Island National Guard troops from Fort Greble on Dutch Island were "attacking" Fort Adams in Newport. As Fort Wetherill was in caretaking status at the time it was not considered part of the war game. This, however, did not deter the caretakers (who were officially part of the garrison at Fort Adams) from helping defend their fort from "attack". (Annual Military Reports, Rhode Island, 1907. pg. 50.)

In 1910 the Secretay of War ordered that Fort Wetherill's largest guns not be fired during the annual training period of the Rhode Island National Guard. This was at the request of Senator George Peabody Wetmore, a Newport summer resident, who's wealthy neighbors complained of the loud noise of the guns.


New Batteries (1908 - 1916)


10-Inch Gun at Fort Standish, Boston Harbor c. 1918
(Similar to Battery Walbach at Fort Wetherill.
Click Image for Larger View.)

In 1908 new gun batteries were completed to the west of the orginial ones. Battery Wheaton was the largest with two twelve inch disappearing rifles. (These had greater range than the guns at Battery Varnum due to being able to be aimed at a high angle.)

In addition to Wheaton, Battery Dickenson had two 6-inch pedestal mounts and Battery Crittenden had two 3 inch pedestal mounts. Cooke had two 3-inch pedestal mounts. Battery Walbach had two 10-inch disappearing guns and Zook had three 6-inch disappearing guns. A standard search light (searchlight #8) was located at Fort Wetherill. It was used as a mine field light for the Eastern Passage. The new batteries made Fort Wetherill one of the most heavilly armed of the Endicott period forts.

In late June 1908 the gun fire from Fort Wetherill shook up some new concrete work in the engineer's storehouse, which is being built there, so that considerable repairing will need to be done. While this was green work, some of the gun replacements in the various fortifications show the effects of the heavy concussions by the development of large cracks. (Newport Daily News, Thursday, July 2, 1908)

Fort Wetherill was part of the inner gun defenses of Narragansett Bay. Along with Forts Adams, Getty and Kearney, it defended the mine fields and submarine barriers and covered the Bay to a line from Point Judith to Sakonnet Point. Of the four major caliber batteries in the inner defense, two are at Fort Wetherill. They are Batteries Wheaton and Varnum (armed with 12-inch rifles). Batteries Edgerton and Green (armed with 12-inch mortars) are at Fort Adams.

The guns at Batteries Wheaton and Varnum had a range of 17,300 yards (about 10 miles) but the maximum range that a target could be tracked was 11,000 yards due to masking of the observation stations. Therefore, it was possible for a hostile vessel to pass the defenses without coming under fire of these batteries. That is not to say, however, that a vessel could not be fired upon by another gun position in the Narragansett Bay defenses.


World War One (1917 - 1919)


Coast Artillery Re-enactor at Fort Wool, Virginia with Spotting Scope.

Fort Wetherill was in caretaking status when the United States declared war on Germany on April 6th, 1917 . To meet the need for trained troops to man the defenses of Narragansett Bay, twenty coast artillery companies of the Rhode Island National Guard were mobilized in August of 1917. Five of these companies were stationed at Fort Wetherill under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Francis Cannon of the Rhode Island National Guard.

The units assigned to Fort Wetherill were the 10th, 11th, 16th, 18th and 21st Companies of the Coast Defenses of Narragansett Bay. These companies had been previously designated, respectively, the 3rd, 11th, 16th, 18th and 7th companies of Rhode Island National Guard Coast Artillery.

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Breech of 12-inch Gun as used at Fort Wetherill
(Move your mouse over the picture for a surprise.)
Photograph is from the Theodor Horydczak collection.

During the war the Guardsmen practiced with the fort's guns and prepared to defend their homes against an attack which never came. As wartime military service goes, it must have been a good assignment. This is because the danger level was low, the surroundings were pleasant, the resort city of Newport was a short boat ride away and, best of all, could go home on days off and visit their families.

In December of 1918 all five companies were demobilized and replaced by the 23rd Coast Artillery Company from Fort Adams. This company remained at Fort Wetherill until September of 1919 when Fort Wetherill was again placed in caretaking status. The caretaking detachment was usually about 20 soldiers detailed from Fort Adams under the supervision of a sergeant.


Between the Wars (1919 - 1939)


Plan of Fort Wetherill in 1921
(Click to Enlarge.)

Between the wars Fort Wetherill remained in caretaking status but was used as a valuable training area by the units of the 243d Coast Artillery Regiment of the Rhode Island National Guard. This training enabled the regiment's troops to remain proficient in their specialties and enabled them to serve effectivly in the Second World War.

An underwater defense project that was approved  by  the Secretary of War on January 17, 1929. It provided for eight groups of mines in the Eastern Passage and four groups of mines in the Western Passage. The groups in the Eastern Passage were controlled from Fort Wetherill. The groups in the Western Passage were controlled from Fort Getty.

In 1931 the Army proposed to sell Forts Wetherill, Greble and Getty but this plan was cancelled.


World War Two (1939 - 1945)

With the advent of World War II, Fort Wetherill was taken off caretaker status, new barracks built and soldiers of the 243rd Coast Artillery Regiment of the Rhode Island National Guard were garrisoned there. In the year before the war, the fort was principally a training center, along with it's original purpose of coastal defense. The training consisted of artillery spotting, signaling, observation and the usual service drudgery of hikes, etc. The fort saw no action in World War II.

About 1,000 members of the 243rd Coast Artillery began one year of military service at Fort Adams on Monday September 23rd, 1940. Colonel Earl C. Webster, commanding officer of the regiment, announced that with the completion of cantonments in two months, three batteries would be retained at Fort Adams, four at Fort Wetherill, four at Fort Getty and one at Fort Kearney.

On October 31st, 1940 Major General Leslie J. McNair, USA, chief of ground forces for the U.S. Army, and members of his staff made an inspection of the Narragansett Bay Harbor Defenses. He was killed in action shortly after the Normandy invaision in 1944.


12-inch Disappearing Gun in Action
(Similar to Battery Wheaton at Fort Wetherill.)

On or about November 15, 1940 the 12-inch guns from batteries Varnum and Wheaton at Fort Wetherill were fired and the reverberations were such that many houses in the Newport area were shaken. Fourteen rounds were fired on these heavy pieces. The firing practice continues with six-inch guns. The danger area extended from Fort Wetherill to Point Judith, in a radius of 14,000 yards extending southerly from Brenton's Reef.

Portions of the new barracks at Fort Wetherill were scheduled for occupancy on November 25th, 1940. 1,000 soldiers were expected to be housed there of the 3,000 planned for forts of the bay area.


Gunnery Practice at Fort Wetherill in 1941.
(Note the use of gas masks by the soldiers.)

The guns at Fort Wetherill were fired with full charges on June 6th, 1941, when shortly after 1 p.m. one of the 12-inch batteries at Fort Wetherill opened fire on targets being towed many miles off the coast. Fourteen rounds were scheduled from the big guns which could hurl a projectile in excess of 15 miles.

For the men stationed at Fort Wetherill during World War Two most of the time was spent waiting for a war that never came. As the war progressed it was realized that the soldiers manning coast defenses could be better used in combat units and many soldiers were reassigned to other jobs in the Army and did see action later in the war.

In the spring of 1945, however, Fort Wetherill once more became a training center. This time it was used to indoctrinate German POW's who had displayed "anti-Nazi" feelings. The purpose of the indoctrination was to instill a desire to attain a democratic way of life and to pass on some of the methods by which this desire could be implemented. The Germans, after completing this program, were to go home and be the leaders for the rebuilding of local areas in Germany.

At the end of the war in 1945, selected German prisoners took part in a program of civic re-education, held at Forts Wetherill, Getty and Kearney in Rhode Island, before going home to work in German law enforcement. This program was succesful in providing post war Germany with a cadre of public officials trained in the ways of democratic government.

In a proposal dated in August of 1945, Fort Wetherill was to be provided with three 3-inch fixed Anti-aircraft guns, three portable anti-aircraft searchlight units, a height finder with three sound locators, a director, a directing point, junction box, and twelve anti-aircraft 50 caliber machine guns. All anti-aircraft ammunition was to be stored in Battery Walbach. This was designated Anti-Aircraft Battery Number 3.


Post World War Two (1945 - Present)

Early in 1946 Fort Wetherill was deactivated. Shortly, thereafter, it's remaining guns were sold for scrap to a firm that manufactured cable. The fort was transfered from the Defense Department to the General Services Administration in 1960.

On August 16, 1972 the 61 acres of the land which contained Fort Wetherill were transferred from the federal government to the State of Rhode Island as part of a federal program turning surplus property over to recreational use. The fort was dedicated as as state park by Governor Frank Licht the same day.

For the past 30 years thousands of visitors have enjoyed the park's spectacular views and opportunities for picnicing, fishing and scuba diving. Unfortunately, the only visages remaining of the Fort's military use are its decaying gun emplacements which have fallen victim to time, the elements and vandalism.

Fort Wetherill, like most other coast defense installation served the United States quietly but well. Although it was never tested in battle it helped to bring a much needed sense of security during the world's two greatest conflicts.


Appendix A

Commanding Officers of Fort Wetherill

First World War
LTC Francis Cannon, CAC, RING c.1917

Second World War

LTC Frank B. Rhodes Jr., 243d CA September 24th, 1940 - August 4th, 1942
MAJ Francis N. Spry, 243d CA August 4th, 1942 - July 30th, 1943
MAJ Fredrick E. Reiber, 243d CA July 30th, 1943 - November 4th, 1943
MAJ Robert S. Rumazza, 243d CA November 4th, 1943 - March 10th, 1944
LTC Francis N. Spry, 243d CA March 10th, 1944 - May 10th, 1945
MAJ William McCachern, 188th CA Bn May 10th, 1945 - probably late 1945


Appendix B

Aramament of Fort Wetherill from the Coast Defense Study Group Database

FORT WETHERILL/ Conanicut Is./ 1900-1945/ state park /MD, MC /KKKK

Varnum/ 2- 12"/ BC/ 1901-1943
Wheaton/ 2 -12" /DC/ 1908-1945
Walbach/ 3- 10"/ DC/ 1908-1942
Zook/ 3- 6"/ DC/ 1908-1918
Dickenson/ 2- 6"/ P/ 1908-1947/ modified WW II
Crittenden/ 2- 3"/ P/1908-1946
Cooke/ 2- 3"/ MP /1901-1920
AMTB 923/ 2- 90 mm/ F/ 194? NC/ modified old 3-in AA blocks


References

"Defenses of Narragansett Bay in World War Two" by Walter K. Schroder.


Back to Coast Defense Forts of New England

Fort Adams Trust Homepage


Send e-mail to John M. Gould


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