For the first 250 years of its modern history, Fishers Island had little military significance. Located just off the Connecticut coast at the eastern entrance to Long Island Sound, it was first settled in 1644 by John Winthrop the Younger. The Island would remain in the Winthrop family as a manor for over 200 years. Its relative isolation from human and four-footed predators, coupled with an abundance of fresh water and land suitable for grazing, made it an ideal location for raising livestock. Populated mostly by farmers tending the Winthrop stock farm, the Island would remain largely unaffected by military concerns. There were, however, exceptions to the rule.
In 1704, a signal beacon was erected atop Mount Prospect, a sandy bluff on the southern shore of Fishers Island, overlooking Block Island Sound. Its purpose was to provide advance warning to the city of New London of any approaching enemy vessels. It was the first time the strategic importance of Fishers Island was recognized.
During the Revolutionary War, its rich farms were tempting targets for the marauding British fleet. Redcoats repeatedly raided the Island for provisions, stripping the Winthrop estate of sheep, cattle, poultry, corn, potatoes, wood and hay. On July 5, 1779, the British sacked the Island, burning its buildings and its crops. The next time Fishers Island appears in military annals is as a footnote to one of the most infamous days in the region's history. On September 6, 1781, a large British force invaded New London, burning down much of the city, and slaughtering many of Fort Griswold's defenders after they had surrendered. The footnote indicates that at the time of the battle, Nathaniel Shaw, New London's greatest patriot and Revolutionary War leader, was away on a fishing expedition to Fishers Island.
At the close of the 19th century, a dramatic shift occurred. Fishers Island moved from the margins of the region's military history to the center of its strategic map. The first signs were small. In 1885, the Army began utilizing Fishers as a military training site, sending a rifle team from Fort Trumbull, New London, for target practice on the western tip of the Island. In little more than a decade, the western tip would be among the most heavily fortified sites on the US coast, protecting New York City and Connecticut's strategic ports. What follows is the story of how and why a sleepy pond-dotted island was transformed into the guardian of the Sound. It all begins with a happy battalion in the summer of 1888.
Piping Times of Peace
On July 4, 1888, New London's newspaper, The Day, reported that 200 soldiers camped at Fishers Island:
A happier battalion of regular army men than now encamped on this Island cannot be found on the muster roll of Uncle Sam's army...It was 10:30 o'clock last evening when the United States ships Galena and Ossippee came to anchor off west harbor. The night was inky dark, but the sky was brilliant with myriads of stars and the big flash light on Race rock winked and blinked at the Yankee tars as if to welcome them and the troops they escorted to the island.
The first contingent of troops bound for Fishers Island consisted of four companies of artillery and one of infantry, drawn from the harbor forts of New York City. The troops were to engage in three months of intensive target practice and skirmish firing in the field.
The general consensus was that the soldiers had been cooped up and cloistered for too long at their posts with no chance for vigorous outdoor instruction and active field training. As part of its ongoing campaign to encourage a more professional military, The New York Times agreed wholeheartedly with the notion of getting stale troops into the field:
For the artillery arm, in these piping times of peace, habituation to open-air camp life is not to be despised, since nearly all the troops are necessarily those who have entered service since the civil war and the artillery gets no employment in Indian hostilities to accustom the men to real campaigning. (July 9, 1888)
When the troops arrived, newspaper accounts repeatedly lauded the suitability of the Fishers Island encampment, praising its proximity to urban centers, varied terrain, and strategic location. The New York Times stated on July 2: "The undulating surface of the island, the several hills at no great distance from each other, the clumps of trees scattered about here and there, all tend to form strategical points of which advantage can be taken." The Day agreed that it was a perfect site for training, but also prophetically recognized that "this portion of Long Island Sound is also of practical importance in its relation to the outer defences of New York, so that the studies of it made by officers during the practice evolutions may bear important fruits." (July 3, 1888)
There were, however, some local concerns generated by the arrival of all these soldiers. The Day assured its readers that "no difficulty is anticipated in preserving the best discipline among the men. They cannot get away from the island without difficulty and although there is lager, etc., on sale at the hotels it will not be furnished to others than guests of the hotels." (July 4, 1888)
To the astonishment of many, the military activity on Fishers Island became a tourist attraction of grand proportions. The New York Times reported that the arrival of the troops "...has completely revolutionized life in this hitherto quiet spot. The soldiers' visit promises to be a godsend to the Summer hotels and cottages which already flourish here. Thousands of people from the mainland, from Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island are poured into the romantic precincts about the camp daily, and the island steadily becomes more deserving of its patronymic, 'The Coney Island of the East.'" (July 22, 1888)
It was considered a marvel that people could travel from as far away as Springfield, Massachusetts, watch the military spectacle on Fishers Island, and still return home to sleep in their own beds that same night. Modern steam trains carried these pioneer day-trippers to New London, where ferries were waiting to take them to the Island:
Three steamers ply constantly between New London and the island. They are crowded all day long with Yankees and representative people from Southern New England whose curiosity has been piqued by the interesting operations of the blue-clad soldiers and the showily dressed marines. There are 300 regulars now in camp here, and it is expected that the number will be swelled to over 600 by the additions from the marine battalions by the 1st of August. Then will take place the most interesting and extensive military and naval operations that have been seen on the Atlantic coast since the close of the civil war. (The New York Times, July 22, 1888)
By mid-July, the Army and Navy had worked out a plan for a mock invasion of Fishers Island. The North Atlantic Squadron, then holding its annual maneuvers at nearby Newport, Rhode Island, would engage the Army troops stationed on Fishers Island. This mock battle was predicted to be of great benefit to both services. Army troops feverishly dug trenches and prepared defensive earthworks to impede the invasion of 'enemy' sailors.
Alas, the eagerly anticipated battle between Army and Navy forces was not to be. Just days before its scheduled start, the sham war was abruptly canceled. The reason? At the last minute, an Islander (either a member of the island-owning Fox family, or a tenant) made a claim to the government for $500 to cover potential damage to crops by the invading naval forces. The Army balked and the Navy decided to sail away rather than pay. The New York Times was furious:
When Autumn maneuvers are to be conducted in Germany the fate of the crops is the last consideration, and if trampled down, appeals for damages are liberally and promptly met. (July 25, 1888)
Relics on the Coast
The Times was not the only public voice filled with concern about Europe's military professionalism versus America's amateurism. Collectively, they portrayed a nation that was ill prepared to meet any foreign threat. There was truth to their charge that the United States had ignored its armed forces. The nation, exhausted by the Civil War, had shown little desire to maintain or fund a professional military. If need be, the argument went, citizen soldiers would rise as they always had in the past. This neglect had taken its toll. The Navy consisted primarily of Civil War antiques, whose maneuvers were mockingly called displays of national weakness. The Army numbered only 25,000 men, scattered at over 200 isolated posts, lacking basic supplies and modern weapons. Their plight was dramatized by accounts in military journals of artillery troops parading about with muskets without access to any artillery save a reveille gun.
Another focus of concern was the state of America's seacoast fortifications, which had been an integral part of the nation's defenses since the first national program of 1794. The architecture and armament of the forts had evolved, but their mission had remained remarkably constant. Their purpose is illustrated by the following summary of principles, first published by the Board of Engineers in 1816:
1. They must close all important harbors against an enemy, and secure them for our merchant marine.
2. They must deprive an enemy of all strong positions...
3. They must cover the great cities from attack.
4. They must prevent...the great avenues of interior navigation from being blockaded at their entrance into the ocean.
5. They must cover the coastwise and interior navigation, by closing the harbors.
6. They must protect the great naval establishments.
By the 1880s, the latest generation of forts guarding our nation's harbors could perform none of these tasks easily. Although many had been built as recently as the 1860s, they were already obsolete. Their imposing vertical walls of brick and masonry, once an effective shield against the cannon ball, were no match for the high-velocity projectiles that could now be fired from naval guns. The harshest critics considered these forts to be oversized targets that invited long-range bombardment and endangered the very cities and harbors they were supposed to defend. America's once formidable forts had been reduced by advances in naval ordnance to "relics on the coast." The prospect of national humiliation loomed large:
Today a million of men, armed with a profusion of every appliance of a modern first-class army, and entrenched about New York City, could not protect it from capture and destruction or contribution by even a second-rate naval power. - (Harper's New Monthly, November 1885)
The Endicott Board
In 1885, responding to entreaties from concerned civilians and high-ranking military officers, Congress authorized President Cleveland to appoint a board to investigate the state of America's seacoast defenses. It was headed by Secretary of War William C. Endicott, and was known as the Endicott Board. Its report, released in 1886, minced no words:
The coast fortifications, which in 1860 were not surpassed by those of any country for efficiency...have, since the introduction of rifled guns of heavy power and of armor plating in the navies of the world, become unable to cope with modern or iron or steel-clad ships of war; far less to prevent their passage into ports destined for attack.
It decried the nation's lack of spine:
It is impossible to understand the supineness which has kept this nation quiet - allowing its floating and shore defenses to become obsolete and effete - without making an effort to keep progress with the age, while other nations, besides constructing powerful navies have not considered themselves secure without large expenditures for fortifications, including armored forts.
The Property at Stake
The Endicott Report laid bare the vulnerability of cities and seacoast populations, warning that America's burgeoning metropolitan areas were tempting targets for any potential enemy to bombard and plunder:
The property at stake exposed to easy capture and destruction would amount to billions of dollars, and the contributions which could be levied by a hostile fleet upon our sea-ports should be reckoned at hundreds of millions.
The Board predicted that future naval attacks would be directed against America's commercial ports, ships engaged in foreign trade, and merchant vessels operating along the coast. Echoing the principles of 1816, it stressed that fortified harbors were needed to provide a safe haven for these ships, and to protect naval stations, navy yards, military depots, lines of communication and transportation centers. Strong fortifications would also free the Navy to assume its proper place on the high seas. No self-respecting world power could afford to have its Navy tied to the coast in a purely defensive posture. Fortified harbors would allow the Navy to roam, protecting America's increasingly far-flung commercial interests. In time of war the Navy had to be free to engage enemy fleets far from its shores at locations of its own choosing.
To counter Europe's domination in armament manufacture, the Board recommended
the immediate establishment of "proper plants for the construction
of modern guns," and encouraged the domestic production of gun steel.
It was considered imperative that the United States
begin producing its own modern armament.
To properly defend America's harbors, the Endicott Board recommended the construction of permanent fortifications in 27 ports, to be armed with 677 high-powered guns and 824 modern mortars. Also included were torpedo boats, submarine mines and floating batteries. It was an ambitious plan with a hefty price tag of $126,377,800. "Nothing less will suffice even for a beginning," the Board stressed.
Congress responded with a yawn. America was at peace and the lack of a perceived threat undermined the arguments for the modernization of coast defenses. Geographic location also influenced the degree of concern. A politician in Indiana was not likely to fear bombardment, nor approve funds to fortify New York City. It would be four years before even modest action was taken to implement the Board's recommendations. However, the Endicott Report provided a rallying cry for its advocates, and a blueprint for action. Ultimately, a new system of fortifications would arise in the late 1890s and early 1900s, part of which would be a fort on the western tip of Fishers Island.
In the wake of the Report's release, the debate over our defenseless coast moved from obscure military journals to the front pages of America's popular magazines and newspapers. There it would remain throughout the last years of the century, peaking in a frenzy triggered by the Spanish-American War. To rouse a largely indifferent Congress and an apathetic citizenry, advocates of coast defense published a flurry of articles that dramatized the perilous vulnerability of target cities, especially New York City, America's premier commercial port:
A hostile fleet lying in the upper bay of New York would have within reach of their guns about two billion dollars worth of destructible property in New York alone...But the effect produced by shells alone would be insignificant in comparison with the sweeping destruction resulting from fire caused by their explosions. No fire department, however efficient, could check the progress of their flames...New York would be doomed... (Journal of the Military Service Institution, December 1886)
Once Inside the Race
The Endicott Report had confirmed the importance of improving New York City's defenses. On its priority list of the ports to be fortified, New York City ranked number one: "This important port must be fortified at both entrances in the most thorough manner." The proposed armament included modern guns, mortars, torpedo boats and submarine mines. All weaponry was designated for existing harbor forts and fortification sites close to the City.
New York City was vulnerable to naval attack from two directions. Ships could approach from the Atlantic and get within bombardment range of downtown at a point south of the Narrows, the channel between Brooklyn and Staten Island, which is currently spanned by the Verrazano Bridge. Or, hostile ships could steam into Long Island Sound from the east, going past Fishers Island through the Race, skirting the coastal cities of Connecticut, (themselves key targets because of their armament industry), to arrive near the spot where the East River and the Sound meet. From that vantage point large sections of uptown could theoretically be bombarded.
In August 1891, a new line of defense for New York City was proposed by a Second Lieutenant named E.M. Weaver. Writing in The United Service, a military journal, he stated:
Every one, it is presumed, has noticed the oval outline of Long Island Sound; how it is narrow at the extremities and widens in the middle. The thought is naturally suggested that it might be possible to establish a line of defense at the eastern entrance to the sound.
He argued that improving the inner line of fortifications, as the Endicott Board had suggested, was nowhere near as effective as mounting an outer line of defense at the eastern entrance to the Sound. George Parsons Lathrop popularized the idea in an 1891 Harper's Weekly article:
In the case of a foreign war, it is quite likely that our assailants would not strike their first blow at Sandy Hook or the Narrow. Their attack would probably be made from the eastward through Long Island Sound, by way of the Race (off New London) and Gardiners Bay. An advance through the sheltered waters of the Sound would then be easy and secure, and at present we have no means of protecting the entrance to those waters. Once inside the Race, a hostile fleet could not only seize New London, and cut important lines of communication, but could destroy towns, cities, property, and material of immense value all along the Connecticut shore. Moreover, it could ravage the greater part of Long Island. Having gained a foothold on both sides of the great coastwise waterway, it would be able to establish bases of supply and of operation for land forces without ever coming in range of the works at Fort Schuyler and Willets Point. These preliminary manoeuvres would in themselves inflict deadly damage on Suffolk, Westchester, and to a greater degree on New York. Besides, with a strong fleet enjoying "the freedom of the Sound" so to speak, the enemy's chance of forcing a passage by Willets Point and capturing the chief commercial city of the Union would be increased enormously...These facts ought to be enough to prove that New York city needs an outer line of defence on the east at the head of the Sound, by which the gates opening into the sound from the Atlantic Ocean could at any moment be closed effectually.
Lathrop's proposed outer line of defense stretched from near Watch Hill, RI, to the tip of Gardiners Island, NY, a distance of 27 miles. The intervening islands of Plum, Great Gull, Little Gull and Fishers greatly facilitated closing the gap. This defense line was further aided by the fact that of the five points of entry into the Sound most were unnavigable to large battleships. The waters of the channel between Fishers Island and New London - Fishers Island Sound - were too shallow. The passage between Race Rock and Fishers Island was also considered unsafe for major battleships. Another unnavigable channel lay between Plum and Gull islands. Plum Gut, between Oyster Pond Point on Long Island, and Plum Island, was too narrow and treacherous for vessels drawing over 15 feet of water. The most likely route into the Sound for hostile vessels was the Race: the deep, swift-moving channel, three and one half miles wide, divided by a shoal known as Valiant Rock.
In Lathrop's words: "It would be difficult to find anywhere in the world a position of such enormous importance, at the same time provided by nature with such extraordinary and providential means of protection. The islands are natural bulwarks, which have only to be suitably furnished with cannon and men to become impregnable."
The Greatest Advance in Artillery
The geography was fortuitous, but what were the weapons that allowed military strategists to consider "locking the gate" of the Sound? They were a new generation of guns and mortars that emerged from the crucibles of the machine age in the decades that followed the Civil War. A combination of technological advances in armament design, metallurgy, propellants and industrial machining allowed the creation of powerful, long-range artillery that outmoded existing cannon.
The new weapons were loaded through the breech (not the muzzle), manufactured of steel (not iron), rifled (not smooth bore), and used efficient slow-burning propellant (instead of explosive gunpowder). Rather than firing ineffective cannonballs, the new weapons blasted high- impact, bullet-shaped projectiles out of long steel barrels. These barrels were rifled: the inner spiral grooves stabilized the projectiles in flight, greatly increasing range and accuracy. Breech-loading enabled crews to load the massive weapons far more efficiently and with less danger.
It was nothing less than a revolution in cannon design. In the words of seacoast defense historian, Dr. Emanuel R. Lewis:
The magnitude of the effect of this combination of developments can hardly be exaggerated, for together they represented the greatest advance to be made in artillery between its invention in the fourteenth century and the appearance of the nuclear projectiles in the mid-twentieth.
The consequences of this quantum leap for the defenses of the Long Island Sound region were dramatic. When these new long-range guns were first mounted on foreign ships in the 1870s, the forts guarding New London (forts Trumbull and Griswold) with their short-range cannon, were rendered obsolete. To counter the threat to all its ports, America's arsenals began developing, testing and producing long-range seacoast guns. By the 1890s, these guns were ready for deployment. With long-range artillery available, the military was now able to move fortifications offshore to the island sites. For the first time it was possible to guard the wide channels of the Sound and to properly protect the strategic port of New London from long-range naval bombardment.
A radically different type of fort emerged to house the new guns. The concept evolved out of a short-lived program in the early 1870s that emplaced large cannon in widely dispersed batteries at strategic locations outside the walls of vulnerable forts. In his book Seacoast Fortifications of the United States, Dr. Lewis summarized the importance of this shift:
This abortive program marked a distinct turning point in American fortification practice, for the technical and tactical concept on which it was based set a pattern that was to characterize all future harbor defense undertakings in the United States. Never again would forts be built in the storybook style as single structures housing large numbers of cannon. From this time on, a fort was a piece of real estate occupied by a number of dispersed individual batteries.
The new system of fortifications derived much of its strength not from thick walls of brick and masonry but from the relative invisibility of both its structure and armament. The modern gun batteries were designed to blend into the surrounding natural landscape, camouflaging the low-lying, reinforced concrete emplacements housing the new weapons.
By the mid-1890s, two US Army officers, Adelbert R. Buffington and William Crozier, had perfected a gun carriage ideally suited for the modern fortifications. Guns mounted on the Buffington-Crozier carriage were loaded and sighted in a lowered position with the parapet providing protection from enemy fire. The gun came into view above the parapet only for a few seconds at the moment of firing - the force of recoil pushed it back down into the loading position. They became popularly known as disappearing guns.
By 1896, the arguments of coast defense advocates had taken hold. The government was ready to proceed with fortifying New York's outer line of defense. Capt. Smith S. Leach, head of the New London District Office, Corps of Engineers, was ordered by the Chief of Engineers to prepare plans for the defense of the eastern entrance of Long Island Sound, and to acquire all sites needed for modern fortifications.
Within months, the lighthouse reservation on Great Gull Island, the
future site of Fort Michie, was transferred to the War Department. By March 1897, the recently promoted Major Leach had obtained a site on Plum Island, the future home of Fort Terry. On April 5, 1898, an abandoned lighthouse reservation on a small sandbar northwest of Gardiners Island, the future site of Fort Tyler, was also taken over by the War Department. In July 1898, a tract of land on Napatree Point, near Watch Hill, RI, was purchased. Fort Mansfield would arise at this location.
In September 1896, negotiations for the desired site on the western tip of Fishers Island had begun. But the government and the Island's principal owners, Edmund M. and Walton Ferguson, were soon locked in a battle over the price of the land. Condemnation hearings to determine a fair price commenced in August 1897. For an extended essay on the acquisition of the fort site on Fishers Island, please see "The Matter of Proceedings to Acquire Land on Fishers Island" on page 208.
The explosion of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898, did more than shock the nation. As is often the case in politics, single dramatic events trigger monumental shifts in policy. Previously recalcitrant politicians became instant converts to the cause of modern seacoast defenses. The possibility of a marauding Spanish fleet cruising up and down our shores put more money in the coffers of coast defense than years of campaigning by concerned advocates. In March, Congress allocated $16,000,000 in emergency appropriations for seacoast fortifications. War was formally declared on April 25, 1898.
Although the Spanish ghost fleet would never appear on the horizon, its specter triggered a frenzied rush to complete the emplacements underway on Great Gull and Plum islands, and pushed forward the planned construction on Napatree Point, RI, and Gardiners Point, NY. It also put pressure on both parties involved with the land dispute on Fishers Island to settle matters promptly.
By May, the need for seacoast fortifications had become a national obsession. Fear and panic of grand proportions gripped the east coast. Rumors circulated widely that a fleet of Spanish warships was loose on the Atlantic, intent on attacking and bombarding American coastal cities. In reality, a squadron under the command of Admiral Pascual Cervera had slipped away from the Cape Verde Islands on April 29, 1898, bound for Cuba. For one month the whereabouts of this phantom Spanish fleet remained a mystery that haunted coastal residents and titillated newspaper readers throughout the land. Sensational newspaper coverage and official secrecy fueled the anxieties of a populace already predisposed to see ghostly apparitions of Spanish invaders in every passing vessel. Swarthy Spanish spies were spotted lurking in the shadows of military installations. Prudent Boston businessmen sent their securities inland to Worcester for safekeeping. Leases for Long Island house rentals included bombardment clauses. Perhaps the greatest measure of popular fear was that people skipped their seashore vacations.
Not a Summer Cottage Open
The summer business at Fishers Island is very backward this year and the opening of the season promises to be delayed beyond that of former years. H.W. Cardwell, purser of the Munnatawket, said this morning that not a summer cottage was yet open on the island. Generally at this time of the year several cottages have been opened. The Mansion House has a few guests, but they are transients employed in making repairs on cottages about the island. (The Day, May 17, 1898)
Just before war was declared, Major Leach had received orders to prepare a regional defense plan. But what scale of defense could be implemented? The recently adopted defense plan for the entrance of Long Island Sound relied on the new seacoast guns with their increased range, power and accuracy. These guns were not yet in place. The proposed chain of fortifications - stretching across the Sound from Napatree Point to Gardiners Point - was virtually useless in the Spanish crisis. The emplacement sites were either under construction, in blueprint stage or, in the case of Fishers Island, bogged down by condemnation hearings. With incomplete fortifications and no modern armament, Major Leach was forced to abandon any notion of blocking the entrance to the Sound, or preventing enemy run-bys. He proposed a strictly local defense of strategic sites along the Connecticut coast. The great port of New York City would have to fend for itself.
The only heavy armament available in Major Leach's district consisted of obsolete smooth-bore cannon mounted (or stored on skids) at forts Trumbull and Griswold, overlooking the Thames River. Major Leach's plan called for stripping most cannon from Fort Griswold, re-deploying some to Fort Trumbull and the rest to temporary batteries to be erected with due haste. These batteries were to be positioned at forward points covering the strategic harbors of the vulnerable shoreline cities, Stonington, New London, New Haven and Bridgeport. It was an emergency plan, useful only if no modern warships swept into Long Island Sound. On the eve of the 20th century, the Spanish crisis had turned back the strategic clock, forcing Major Leach to resurrect the armament and tactics of an earlier era.
Not a Single Gun Placed
Major Leach also devised a plan for a coastal chain of government signal stations connected by telephone wire, creating a primitive distant-early-warning system that was capable of raising the alarm in the tradition, if not the style, of Paul Revere's famous ride.
He picked Mount Prospect, Fishers Island, as the site of the first signal station in the chain. From this perch, observers could communicate with the front-line outlook on Block Island by heliograph, signal flags or flares. He arranged with Southern New England Bell to run telephone wires and poles to the tip of Race Point. From there the system was connected by cable to New London, where wires ran westerly until they reached Noroton Point, west of Norwalk, almost the full length of the Connecticut coast.
Major Leach further suggested the removal or displacement of buoys, bells and lightships in Fishers Island Sound - thus employing on water the familiar land-tactic of changing road signs to confound an invading force. In mid-May, he ordered the planting of a total of 89 submarine mines in New London Harbor and New Haven's waters.
According to the New York Sun, the Sound was now safe from any fleet. A Fishers Island resident disagreed, and wrote a letter to The Day.
To the Editor of The Day,
After having read an article entitled "Sound is Safe," as a resident of Fishers Island I cannot refrain from giving a few facts in regard to the matter.
The article says there are defensive works and elaborate telephone signal service system here, and fortifications were started three months ago. Now when a portion of an article is untrue we feel like investigating and asking the question, Is any portion of the article true? Nothing whatever has been done to fortify this island, not a single gun placed here. The telephone wire is placed in position but not attached to a battery, and there is no signal corps here.
Without doubt the Race is one of the most important places in which mines should be placed, yet we are under the impression that none have been placed there as yet. -Resident, Fishers Island. N.Y., May 17 
Major Leach never got the troops his improvised defense plan required. The early warning system was erected, but no forces were provided to operate it. The mines proved a major inconvenience to local shipping. Temporary batteries of smooth-bore cannon were ready by mid-May for service at Stonington, Bridgeport, and New Haven, but no troops were at any time assigned, with the exception of those posted at the battery at Stonington.
In May, poorly armed detachments of the 1st Connecticut Volunteer Infantry took station on Plum and Gull islands and paraded around the construction site. A 4.7-inch rapid fire gun was ready for service on Plum Island but Major Leach stated that the volunteer troops "would have been of little or no use had it been necessary to serve the guns."
On May 13, at the height of the Spanish-American crisis, he summed up the deplorable condition of the defenses in a letter to the Adjutant General, Department of the East:
Emplacements are under construction at each place [Great Gull and Plum islands], and large forces of workmen are employed. They are mostly Italians, and, aside from the doubtful propriety of utilizing them as a defensive force in case of attack, it is, in my opinion, very imprudent to place arms within their reach on the islands, as they are at best turbulent in disposition and wholly irresponsible and unreliable. The works themselves are in an unfinished condition, and could be damaged to a very large degree. There is no armament yet in either place.
Spain was defeated on August 13, 1898, but America had dodged a bombardment: "Had the United States been at war with England or France, instead of having Spain to contend with, a fleet would have swept through the narrow passage at the eastern end of Connecticut and laid under contribution all points as far as Throgg's Neck." (The Day, March 20, 1899)
The war had been a wake-up call for the nation. It was now of utmost urgency that all fortifications at the eastern entrance to the Sound be completed at the earliest possible date. The site on Fishers Island was formally acquired three weeks after hostilities ended. Within months, the western tip of Fishers Island was transformed into a vast military construction site.
Utter Official Silence
Almost no eyewitness accounts of the construction of a fort on Fishers Island exist. During the war, reporters had illegally landed on Great Gull and Plum islands, and written what Major Leach considered inaccurate and sensational stories. Consequently, reporters and photographers were denied access to the construction site on Fishers. Only one brief news story has been found:
Work is not so far advanced on this great vantage point for defence as it is on the other islands. The place now teems with activity and industry. Buildings cover its inhospitable wastes, smoke from engine furnaces rises through tall chimneys and deeply laden boats discharge their cargoes. There is utter official silence on the delicate subject of the precise location of the battery. (The Day, March 20, 1899)
How strictly this policy of military secrecy was enforced is illustrated by the fact that when an employee of a construction firm needed to photograph equipment at the fort site, the Major gave specific instructions that the batteries under construction could not appear in the background.
The Status of the Pond
Major Leach's first task was to create a landing dock for supplies. In a letter to the Chief of Engineers dated December 13, 1898, he stated:
The necessity for the work arises from the fact that there is no landing of any character on the Government Reservation, and none on the island at all, which is practicable to use for landing materials for the work. Cutting into Silver Eel Pond is proposed, because it is not only cheaper than to build a dock out into the Sound, but affords a perfectly land-locked harbor in which vessels can lie and discharge in any weather.
The problem was that the government only owned half of Silver Eel Pond. The Chief of Engineers wanted to know: "Is it possible that the proposed dredging will interfere with any use of the pond which the adjoining owners by right enjoy?"
Major Leach's response indicates that he believed salt water fishing to be equal to fresh:
The status of the pond as regards to the joint ownership of the United States and private parties has been carefully considered. No material will be taken from, or placed upon, a foot of ground not belonging to the United States; nothing will be done that can affect the private interests in the pond, except that by opening it to the sea, its surface will rise and fall with the tide. Its natural level is higher than average high tide, so that when opened to tidal flow, its surface will rarely, if ever, be higher than now, but generally lower.
In December 1898, labor crews began preliminary cuts to open Silver Eel Pond. When the channel was fully dredged in February 1899, Edmund and Walton Ferguson suddenly owned part of a pond that rose and fell with the tides. (The government acquired the eastern half of Silver Eel in 1908.)
By June 1899, a breakwater jetty had been constructed to protect the cut, and a dock was built along the shore of Silver Eel. A short leg of a railroad system was installed that connected the new cove to the construction site for the 10- and 12-inch guns. Once the dock was built a steady stream of boats and steamers delivered phenomenal amounts of lumber, piping, steel beams, and broken stone. The following details from a bidding document illustrate the scale of the loads: "Large broken stone must be in pieces weighing not less than 250 lbs., nor more than three tons each...The quantity required is 7,000 to 9,000 tons...The stone must be delivered alongside the Government piers on open-deck scows of a capacity of not less than 200 tons each." This was just part of the stone necessary for two gun emplacements.
Another report states that the excavation on the gun emplacements was "exceedingly difficult on account of the bowlders of all sizes, about 2,500 tons of good grout or large broken stone having been secured from the large bowlders found in the excavation."