History of Fort Constitution

Part II: 1890-Present

The Endicott Period

Beginning in 1897, a new system of defenses was built outside of the fort proper. A concrete battery was built into the rocky hill under Walbach Tower, which was equiped with two 8-inch breach-loading rifles, Model 1888MII, serials 38, 43 (Watervliet Arsenal), on disappearing carriages, Model 1894, serials 23, 22 (Providence Steam Engine Co.), with hand-operated platform ammunition hoists. The battery was armed and operational in 1898 during the Spanish-American War, but was not fully completed until 1899. It was named Battery Elon Farnsworth in honor of Brigadier General Elon John Farnsworth, killed in action in Pennsylvania in 1863. The battery continually suffered from extreme dampness, however, and was never electrified. Due to structural problems that were never completely fixed, it was also never modernized prior to World War I. (See Battery Farnsworth photos.) In 1898, during the Spanish-American War, the harbor was planted with 21 underwater mines, each loaded with 101 pounds of gun-cotton, and anchored by 1000-pound anchors. The U.S. Lightship Lilac laid buoys to mark the locations of the mines. The buoys also served as daymarkers to warn local boaters. The Lighthouse Board then ordered that all lights and fog signals at Fort Constitution and on Seavey's Island be turned off at night. The minefield was electrified at night from 8PM to 4AM. The crisis ended after about two months, but the mines remained in place until 1899. A small concrete mine casemate was completed in 1898 under the left flank of Battery Farnsworth to control the detonation of the mines in the harbor. However, this casemate was never again used afterwards due to wetness problems. (NOTE: This casemate may or may not have been actually used in 1898 for mining operations. Sources are not clear as to whether there was also a temporary casemate built during the war, because of the stated wetness problems.) Harbor mining operations at that time were conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers, not the Coast Artillery, until about 1901. A replacement mine casemate was later built at Fort Stark in 1907. The wartime garrison of the fort in 1898 first consisted of one company of the 1st Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, sent in late May - early June, who were then replaced in July by Battery K, 2nd U.S. Artillery, commanded by a Captain Curtis. They were posted here until 1900, and then replaced by a 20-man detachment from Battery M, 4th U.S. Artillery, sent from Fort Strong in Boston, Mass..

Of historical note, Tom Mix, the famous Hollywood Westerns actor during the 1920s, served here with Battery M, 4th U.S. Artillery.

Battery Farnsworth
photo by Kenneth Maxam, from a copy by Douglas Armsden
Battery Farnsworth, circa 1915.
(click for larger version)

The 124th Company, U.S. Coast Artillery, was headquartered here from 1902 to 1907 before being transferred to Fort Andrews in Boston. It was replaced by the 156th Company (Mines), U.S. Coast Artillery, who were posted here from 1907 to 1924. In 1901 a large brick mine-storage building (or torpedo storehouse) was built on the granite pavement between the two outer walls, to supply the mines for the defense of the harbor. A small pier was built on the north side of the fort, near the mine-storage building, to load the prepared mines onto mine planter boats for planting in the harbor. The mine boat assigned to Portsmouth Harbor during this time was the USAMP General Royal T. Frank, which was also used in Boston and Portland Harbors. A wooden cable tank building was built in 1901 in front of the old fort's gatehouse. A wooden loading room and service dynamite room were built in 1907 in front of the torpedo storehouse, near the wharf. A rail system, or tramway, of hand-pushed cars was devised to transport the mines from the storage and loading rooms to the mine wharf. An additional 8.15 acres of land was purchased by the federal government in 1902 to accommodate several new garrison buildings planned for construction. In 1904 a two-story wooden-frame primary fire-control station (B') for Battery Farnsworth was built behind the ruins of Walbach Tower.

Walbach Tower, Farnsworth B' Station, and Officers' Quarters
courtesy of the Library of Congress
A view of the ruins of Walbach Tower, circa 1907.
To the right is the Lieutenant's Quarters (built 1892),
and the primary (B') fire-control station for Battery Farnsworth (center).
(click for larger version)

In 1904 a second battery was completed between Battery Farnsworth and the old fort, consisting of two shielded 3-inch rapid-fire guns, Model 1903, serials 88, 89 (Watervliet Arsenal), on pedestal-mounted barbette carriages, Model 1903, serials 63, 64 (Watertown Arsenal), to supplement the fire of the 8-inch guns. This battery was named Battery Pleasant Adam Hackleman in honor of Brigadier General Pleasant Adam Hackleman, killed in action in Mississippi in 1862. The four remaining mounted 100-pounder seacoast Parrott guns were then removed from the old fort and sold in 1905.

Fort Casey Gun
photo by Dan Rowbottom, Coast Defense Study Group
A restored 3-inch shielded pedestal-mounted gun, Model 1903,
located at Fort Casey, Whidbey Island, Washington.

World War I Era

In 1917 the harbor was again planted with mines. Also, the two guns of Battery Farnsworth were removed and sent to Watertown Arsenal, Mass. for the intended purpose of remounting as railway guns to be used in France by the American Expeditionary Force. The carriages were removed in 1918. The battery was never rearmed. Later it would be used for storing mine cable and other equipment. It was proposed in 1938 to have a 60-inch searchlight position built on emplacement #2. During the war wooden barracks were erected on concrete pilings on the parade ground inside of the old fort. These housed the battery gunners, as well as serving as receiving quarters for new National Guard and Coast Artillery troops until 1945.

In 1920 a Coincidence Range Finder (CRF) Station was built atop the bastion of the old fort to direct the fire of Battery Hackleman, but without a roof. A large modern concrete mine casemate was constructed behind Battery Farnsworth, into the hill under Walbach Tower, replacing the temporary mine casemate at Fort Stark. Electrical cables ran underground from here to a "cable hut" (or junction box) at Fort Stark, which then sent another cable underwater to a distribution box which sent cables separately to each of the mines in the harbor. Control and firing of the mines were operated from the plotting room in the casemate, with visual guidance from the two mine observation stations. The cable tank building was enlarged to accommodate the extra cable lengths needed for the mines. The earthen berm behind the central traverse of Battery Farnsworth was removed, and an electrical power plant was completed in 1921. Also in 1921 the former B' fire-control station for Battery Farnsworth was redesignated as the new M' mine station for the harbor, replacing the old M' mine station at Fort Stark. The fort was placed on caretaker status between 1922 and 1940, under the watch of Battery E, 8th Coast Artillery Regiment (Harbor Defense), U.S. Army, which was based in Portland, Maine. The seawall on both sides of the old fort was built by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1938, using many of the granite blocks taken from the unfinished Civil War era walls.

1920 site plan
Map based on 1920 US Army Corps of Engineers site plan.

World War II

In 1941 the Headquarters, Harbor Defenses of Portsmouth Harbor was relocated to Camp Langdon, a short distance south between Fort Constitution and Fort Stark, in an area now called "Great Island Common". The 22nd Coast Artillery Regiment (Harbor Defense), U.S. Army was formed in 1940 and headquartered there. The Mine Group Command post for Portsmouth Harbor was transferred to Fort Foster, and Fort Constitution then became strictly a Mine Operations Depot. In 1942 a new concrete Mine Observation station (M1) was built on top of Battery Farnsworth, and used in conjunction with an opposite station (M2) at Fort Foster. A second mine casemate was also built at Fort Foster. The inner two lines of mines (seven groups, 13 mines each) in the outer harbor (outside of Whaleback Light) were controlled from the casemate here at Fort Constitution. The outer line (seven groups, 13 mines each) was controlled from Fort Foster. The explosive TNT for the mines was stored in an isolated magazine at Fort Dearborn. A set of two hydrophones was located between the middle and outer line of mines, controlled from Fort Stark. A second set of four hydrophones was located outside the outer line of mines, controlled from Fort Foster. A series of four underwater magnetic indicator loops were installed further out to sea, from Sisters' Point to Appledore Island, and back around to Rye Ledge, controlled from the Navy Indicator Loop Station on Appledore Island. The hydrophones and magnetic indicator loops were used to detect submerged enemy submarines trying to enter the outer harbor. No enemy vessels are known to have penetrated the harbor defenses of Portsmouth. (See also 1945 Harbor Mine Defenses for maps and photos)

During the war the mine casemate was upgraded to protect against shell fire, gas attack, and commando raids. The concrete facade, with an airlock chamber (still visible today), was added to the front. The CRF station for Battery Hackleman was rebuilt in 1942 as a fully enclosed Battery Commander's Station. Searchlight position #11 was between the battery and the lighthouse. The primary weather station and tide station for the Harbor Command were located at the wharf. The original guns of Battery Hackleman were removed in 1942 and sent to Fort H. G. Wright, Fishers Island, New York. They were replaced with the guns from Battery Lytle at Fort Stark, which was in the process of being relocated. In 1943 the Civil War era wooden boathouse at the wharf was rebuilt to accommodate and repair the eight mine yawls (26-footers) assigned to the harbor. They were listed as the M-302, M-304, M-320, M-321, M-348, M-385, M-414, and the M-460. The Army mine planter boat assigned to Portsmouth Harbor during this time was the Boston-based USAMP Brigadier General Henry L. Abbott, which was also used in Portland. A junior mine planter, the JMP 70 (107-feet), was also berthed here. Two smaller DB (distribution box) boats (65-feet), the L-95 and the L-111, were also in use here. During the war, other Boston-based vessels also served Portsmouth from time to time, including among others, the USAMP General Absalom Baird, the JMP General Richard Arnold, the JMP Lt. Col. M.N. Greeley, and the DB boat L-88.

Read the story on the tragic sinking of the JMP General Richard Arnold on 8 January 1942 while trying to save the L-88 just offshore near the Isles of Shoals. Online version courtesy of SeacoastNH.com

Read about the story of Lester Stevens, who served here in 1941-45 with the mine planter boats, and who later became the park ranger for Fort Stark from 1991-98, in an article from The Atlantic News, December 5 and 12, 1996.

Post Military Period

The Army deactivated the fort in 1948, along with the rest of the nearby forts defending Portsmouth Harbor. The Portsmouth Harbor Lifeboat Station was established in 1948, transferring some functions away from the Portsmouth Harbor Lifesaving Station on Wood Island. Coast Guard personnel were quartered in the Light Keeper's House, and a former Army barrack was converted to a Recreation Center. The CRF/BC Station for Battery Hackleman was used as a lookout station until later replaced with a steel-frame tower. The U.S. Navy took over responsibility of the post in 1950. The New Hampshire National Guard used the old fort from 1951 until 1958 for training purposes, and also as a post for the Military Police Company, 737th AFA Service Battalion. In 1960 the General Services Administration (GSA) transferred the original 1.75 acres, along with the original fort, back to the State of New Hampshire, which was designated a state historic site, but remained undeveloped and was not opened for general public visitation until 1973. In 1965 the Treasury Department received 8.30 acres, establishing the U.S. Coast Guard Station, Portsmouth Harbor. The disposition of the remaining 1.5 acres of the original military reservation is unclear.

1966 aerial photo
photo by Douglas Armsden
An aerial photograph taken in 1966.
(click for larger version)

In 1965 Battery Hackleman was demolished to make way for the current Coast Guard Administration Building, completed in 1966. An asphalt helipad was constructed between the Administration Building and Battery Farnsworth. The old mine storehouse became the visitor center for the new park in 1974, but since 1989 it has been used as the Coastal Marine Laboratory of the University of New Hampshire (UNH). It is closed to the general public. In 1973 Fort Constitution was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The fort's gatehouse was refurbished in 1974 for the Bicentennial celebrations. Admission to the fort is free. However, the Coast Guard grounds and buildings are off-limits to the public. There is limited interpretation inside the fort. The public parking lot is behind Battery Farnsworth.

Located to the northwest of the old fort was the former 500-foot pier (built in 1968) that was once used for the Coast Guard vessels based here in New Castle. The vessels presently based here in Portsmouth Harbor (as of 2003) include the USCGC RELIANCE (WMEC 615) and the USCGC CAMPBELL (WMEC 909), now permanently berthed upriver at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard due to safety concerns of the pier, which was condemned in 1996. UNH has since completely rebuilt the pier for UNH and NOAA ocean research vessels. In September 1999, 1.85 acres of land were transferred by quitclaim from the Coast Guard to the Town of New Castle, as a green space buffer. This parcel is located at the corner of Wentworth Road and Ocean Avenue. In June 2001, 5.5 acres of land were transferred by quitclaim from the Coast Guard to the University of New Hampshire (UNH) for the new National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) - UNH Cooperative Institute for New England Mariculture and Fisheries (CINEMar). This includes the parcel containing Battery Farnsworth, the Mine Casemate, and Walbach Tower, which are currently fenced off from public access due to their deteriorating and unsafe condition. (Read progress updates on the UNH Marine Research Facility project.) Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) documentation was undertaken for Battery Farnsworth, the Mine Casemate, and Walbach Tower in 2004, and a formal Historic Structures Report for the same was produced in 2006 by UNH and the National Park Service.

Fort Constitution Lighthouse, more commonly known as Portsmouth Harbor Light, or "Fort Point Light", is outside the southeast corner of the old fort. It was built in 1877 upon the 1803 tower foundation. It was originally a dark reddish-brown until painted white in 1902. The adjacent brick oil house was built in 1903, restored in 2004. The light was electrified in 1934, and was automated in 1960. It was refurbished in 1977, and again in 1998-2000. It is still an active aid to navigation. The present Keeper's House, built in 1872, was originally located about 1000 feet west, near where Battery Farnsworth was later built. It was moved in 1897 closer to the lighthouse, near where Battery Hackleman was later built. It was moved again in 1906 to its present location within the two walls of the old fort. It is still currently in use by the Coast Guard. Public access to the Lighthouse and the adjacent ground is not allowed, except for special prearranged tours and open houses given by the "Friends of Portsmouth Harbor and Whaleback Lighthouses", an American Lighthouse Foundation chapter and lease-holder of the lighthouse since 2000. Show your interest in the Friends of Portsmouth Harbor and Whaleback Lighthouses, an all-volunteer organization that has restored, rehabilitated, and interpreted the lighthouse for the general public. Please send inquiries to INFO @ PortsmouthHarborLighthouse.org, or P.O. Box 8232, Portsmouth, NH, 03802-8232, for further information.

Chicago Tribune Tower - brick in wall
photo courtesy of Terry Welshans 2004
An old brick from Fort William and Mary embedded in the wall of Chicago's Tribune Tower.
Located on the Illinois Street side of the building,
the brick is most likely from the early 1800s Federal period.

List of Sources Used

Fort Constitution State Historic Site official website from NH State Parks

Fort Constitution and Portsmouth Harbor USCG Station
courtesy of Microsoft Terraserver
A 1992 USGS Satellite Image of the fort.
Outlined in yellow, from left to right, are: 1920 Mine Casemate,
Walbach Tower magazine, Battery Farnsworth.

NOTE: Strawbery Banke Museum images displayed on this page are to be used for non-commercial, personal, and private use only. Any other use, including publication, copying, or redistribution of said images in any manner is prohibited without prior written permission from Strawbery Banke Museum, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and from American Forts Network.

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