Sandy Hook, key to New York City
To enter New York Harbor, ships need a deep channel. Until the 1900s, that meant sailing next to the shore of Sandy Hook. This gave the small peninsula a big role in the safety and defense of New York Harbor for more than a century before Fort Hancock was built.
In 1764, the Colony of New York built Sandy Hook Light to assist navigation. In 1776, near the start of the American Revolution, it was easily captured by the British. In June 1776, Continental Army Lt. Col. Benjamin Tupper led his artillery to destroy the tower, "but found the walls so firm I could make no Impression." Unlike most of New Jersey, both the Sandy Hook Lighthouse and New York City remained in British and Loyalist hands until the war's end in 1783. Loyalists guarded the Light for the remainder of the War, using the Hook to stage raids on patriot-held areas in New Jersey.
During the War of 1812, a wooden fortification named Fort Gates was constructed in 1813, an example of what is now called the 2nd system of defense. The lighthouse itself was armed with cannon.
After the war of 1812, recommendations were made to construct a large permanent fortification at the end of the Hook, but it wasn't until 1857 that work began. Over the next three years, a large wharf was constructed to receive new building supplies and materials and the fortification of the fort was laid out. In 1859, the U.S. Army began to construct the Fort at Sandy Hook. It also served as a camp for the 10th New York Volunteer Infantry, or the "National Zoauves." The fort was never completed, however, and was deserted after the war. (The granite structure was largely torn down by the Army in the 1950s.) This represented the 3rd system of defenses.
Starting in 1890, the Army constructed the first of many concrete gun batteries of the Endicott era. Next were Taft Defenses that included changes to existing fortifications and the addition of 12-inch barbette guns. (The Army also created the Sandy Hook Proving Ground in 1874, which remained a separate entity until it was moved to Maryland in 1919.)
In 1895, the U.S. Army commissioned Fort Hancock to protect New York Harbor from invasion by sea. Its yellow brick buildings were constructed largely between 1898-1910, with the fort reaching its peak population in World War II. Fort Hancock's defenses waxed and waned with the needs of the nation from the end of the Spanish-American War through the end of World War II.
The fort's population peaked during World War II to more than 7,000 soldiers. These included members of the Women's Army Corps, who were housed in Barracks 25. Male soldiers, who called it the "WAC Palace," were denied entry. African-American soldiers also worked and lived here in a move that predated the overall desegregation of the Army, which occurred in 1947 by an executive order from President Harry Truman.
Aircraft changed the style of warfare forever, and by the end of World War II anti-aircraft guns had taken over the key defensive role at Fort Hancock. The Cold War era brought a change from anti-aircraft guns to Nike Missiles that could intercept jet warplanes. These surface-to-air nuclear missiles were housed here between 1954 and 1974.
The fort was decommissioned on December 31, 1974. Since then, Fort Hancock has served the public as the Sandy Hook Unit of Gateway National Recreation Area.
The Fort Hancock and Sandy Hook Proving Ground National Historic Landmark covers the entire peninsula, including what is now under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Coast Guard. Visitors may tour gun batteries and the historic post as well as enjoy Sandy Hook's trails and beaches.
Brochures about Fort Hancock
Dig deeper: Historic Structural, Landscape and other Reports
Several structures at Fort Hancock Historical Post have been the subject of various historical surveys. These are not light reading but include a great deal of information for the scholar or the enthusiast. They also can be quite lengthy and may time a lot of time to download.
General reports about Fort Hancock