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Fort Point, guardian of the Golden Gate


Immediately under the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge stands Fort Point, a US Army fortress that protected the approach to San Francisco Bay during the Civil War. Fort Point is one of the best-preserved coastal defense forts of its era, and one of the few major sites of Civil War significance on the West Coast.

The Army built Fort Point as part of the Third System of Coastal Fortifications, which were built between the end of the War of 1812 and the beginning of the Civil War. Most of the Third System forts were built on the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. When I lived in Alabama in grad school ten years ago, I visited several Third System forts; some of my pictures of those forts appear in this video.

While I enjoyed visiting those forts, I was disappointed to find that many of them had ugly concrete batteries from a later era, the Endicott System, built right inside them. Not even iconic Fort Sumter, where the Civil War began, was spared this fate! But Fort Point didn’t have any concrete gun batteries built inside it, as there were plenty of more convenient sites for the big guns elsewhere on the Golden Gate (and they probably wouldn’t have fit anyway). Although Fort Point is hardly in pristine condition (all of its original guns are missing, and the fort was modified in an abortive attempt to convert it into a second prison like Alcatraz), the fort is substantially complete, and it is easier to envision how it was used in the 1800s than it is while visiting many other Third System forts.

When researching this video, I found no shortage of secondary source material about Third System forts in general and Fort Point in particular. Some of this material was produced by the National Park Service for its own use in maintaining and interpreting the site. Another very useful source was (surprisingly) a Master’s thesis from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, which provided a wide-angle view of Third System forts that other secondary source material lacked.

Fort Point under Golden Gate Bridge

Fort Point is nestled under the southern end of the Golden Gate Bridge. It is easy to miss, but well worth taking the time to pay it a visit if you are in San Francisco.

Fort Point scarp wall

The southern or scarp wall of the fort, which was the only wall that did not face the ocean.

Fort Point gorge wall

The gorge wall in the interior of the fort, on the same side as the scarp wall. This is where the officers and enlisted men had their quarters.

Fort Point powder magazine

The reconstructed powder magazine of Fort Point, in the scarp side of the fort. (This display was under renovation when I shot this video, which is why it does not appear in the video. I took this picture in 2019.)

View of the parade ground inside Fort Point. The three arched tiers around the courtyard are the casemates, where the guns were mounted to protect against enemy ships.

View of the parade ground inside Fort Point. The three arched tiers around the courtyard are the casemates, where the guns were mounted to protect against enemy ships.

Fort Point vaults

The vaults in the casemates.

Fort Point roof

View from the top level of the fort.

Sources

  • Charlesworth, Timothy J. “Defending America’s Shore: A Historical Analysis of the Development of the U.S. Army’s Fortification System, 1812-1950.” Master’s thesis, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 2000. https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/pdfs/ADA384106.pdf.
  • Cultural Resources and Museum Management Division. Abbreviated Fort Point Historic Structure Report. San Francisco: Golden Gate National Recreation Area, 2006.
  • National Park Service. Fort Point. N.p.: Government Printing Office, 2017.
  • Smith, Mark A. Engineering Security: The Corps of Engineers and the Third System Defense Policy, 1815-1861. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2009.
  • Stephenson, John. “Deterrence in Stone: Seacoast Fortresses of the 19th Century.” Periodical: Journal of America’s Military Past 20, no. 2 (summer 1993): 10-18.

The Nike missiles of Cold-War San Francisco

From the 1950s to the 1970s, San Francisco—along with many other American cities and strategic areas—was protected by batteries of Nike missiles against a possible attack by Soviet bombers. One of those missile sites, SF-88, has been restored by the National Park Service and is now open for tours.

This video presents a history of the Nike missiles as a whole, followed by a tour of the SF-88 site. I shot the video on a visit to the site in May of this year. I did a fair bit of reading before writing the narration. Secondary sources about the Nike missiles are surprisingly sparse. One commonly-cited book, Rings of Supersonic Steel (see bibliography below) was written for enthusiasts, and I didn’t find it very useful. Another book, The Last Missile Site, was much more useful for me, because it provided both the broader context of the missiles and detailed information about the site. I based the second half of the narration heavily on information from this book.

Nike-Hercules in underground magazine

A Nike-Hercules missile in its underground magazine at SF-88, awaiting launch.

Nike-Hercules in launch position

A missile erected in launch position.

Integrated Fire Control trailers

Trailers from Integrated Fire Control, originally on top of Wolf Ridge (background), but now down at the launch area for easy access. The trailer in front is the Director Station Trailer; the one in the back is the Tracking Station Trailer.

MTR and LOPAR antennas

Two radar antennas, also originally on top of Wolf Ridge. The ball-shaped antenna in the foreground is a Missile Tracking Radar (the Target Tracking Radar and Target Ranging Radar looked identical to this); the rectangular antenna in the background is the Low-Power Acquisition Radar.

Hercules upper stage

A Hercules upper stage in the Missile Assembly and Test Building.

Hercules electronics

Some of the electronic guts of the Hercules upper stage.

Bibliography

“A fatal first for the Nikes.” Life, June 2, 1958, 40.

Davidson, Bill. “Can Nike X save us?” Saturday Evening Post, August 27, 1966, 19-21.

Golden Gate National Recreation Area. “Cold War Era, 1952-1974.” National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/goga/learn/historyculture/cold-war.htm.

Haller, Stephen A., and John A. Martini. The Last Missile Site: An Operational and Physical History of Nike Site SF-88, Fort Barry, California. Bodega Bay, California: Hole in the Head Press, 2010.

Morgan, Mark L., and Mark A. Berhow. Rings of Supersonic Steel: Air Defenses of the United States Army 1950-1979 – An Introductory History and Site Guide. 1992; 3rd ed. Bodega Bay, CA: Hole in the Head Press, 2010.

Smith, John. “On Nike Duty: Anti-Aircraft Missiles Protected Nation During Cold War.” Army Magazine, May 2020, 42-46.

Thompson, Craig. “They Didn’t Want That Guided Missile.” Saturday Evening Post, September 9, 1955, 36-37, 90-92.

Ubell, Earl, and Stuart H. Loory. “The Death of Nike-Zeus.” Saturday Evening Post, June 1, 1963, 15-19.

History and geography of Tabasco video

Tabasco is a small, verdant, and very hot state in southern Mexico. Mexico’s first civilization, the Olmec civilization, was based in Tabasco and neighboring Veracruz. The Maya built pyramids and wrote glyphic inscriptions there as well.

Last summer, when I was visiting Tabasco, I shot a video about the geography and some of the early history of Tabasco, including the Olmecs and the Maya. I finally finished editing the video just this week. Here it is in its finished form (plus some pictures related to the video).

Your blogger with La Venta Head 1

Mexico’s first civilization, the Olmec civilization, was based in Tabasco and neighboring Veracruz. The Olmecs are best known for carving giant stone heads. This one is La Venta Head #1. It was discovered at La Venta archeological site in the western part of the state, and moved to the state capital Villahermosa, when the site was threatened with destruction by Pemex, the government petroleum company. The four heads from La Venta reside in Villahermosa to this day.

Your blogger with a statue of the Mayan king Tabscoob.

Mundo Maya, the realm of the Mayan civilization, extended into Tabasco. In fact, the name of the state is apparently derived from Tabscoob, the name of a Chontal Maya king who fought against Cortés in 1519. This is an impressive statue of him on the road to the airport in Villahermosa.

Comalcalco Templo I

The most impressive Mayan site in Tabasco is Comalcalco. Like Palenque in nearby Chiapas, Comalcalco has a pyramid and a palace building. Unlike Palenque, and every other Mayan city, Comalcalco is built of brick, because there is no stone in that part of Tabasco. This is Temple I at the site.

Carlos Pellicer museum facade

The Carlos Pellicer Cámara regional museum of anthropology in Villahermosa has a fine collection of artifacts, including one of the four La Venta heads. It is named for a famous Tabascan poet who was also an advocate for historic preservation.

Your blogger with Tortugeuro Stela

One of the artifacts in the Carlos Pellicer Cámara museum is the Tortugeuro Stela, which states that the Long Count, an ancient Mayan epoch, would terminate on a date equivalent to December 21, 2012. This was the source of fears that the world would end in 2012, although the stela doesn’t not make that claim. It just says that the Long Count would end then, and presumably a new one would begin.

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