Napatree Point got its name in 1614 thanks to the Dutch explorer Adrian Block. He had sailed up along Long Island Sound and called the narrow land spit jutting out from Watch Hill “Nap of Trees” because of its heavily wooded appearance (which was completely torn away in the Great Gale of 1815). Napatree marks the southernmost point of mainland Rhode Island. The 1.5-mile peninsula forms a barrier beach that was once the site of a well-armed coastal defense facility at the turn of the 20th century and between the 1920s and 1930s, a small colony of summer cottages that lined the dune crest facing the ocean. Napatree is also remembered as the site of a tragic loss of life during the 1938 hurricane.
Today, visitors to the location (now a protected 86-acre conservation area) in addition to viewing a variety of endangered bird species, can find remnants of concrete emplacements that once housed powerful 8-inch and 6-inch guns intended to protect the entrance to Long Island Sound between Watch Hill Point and Fisher’s Island from enemy warships. The military importance of the site had been recognized from early colonial days when it served as one of a series of warning stations that lined the coast to alert of an attack by sea. These were simple installations of a firebox atop a pole. The flames could be seen by night and the smoke by day and relayed point-to-point up the coastline. During the American Revolution, the Westerly militia erected breastworks atop Watch Hill to protect cannoneers, presaging further improvements that would culminate in the late 19th century, when a series of major coast defense facilities were established in Rhode Island. Varnum News has contained stories of several of these defenses, popularly known as Endicott Forts.
In 1884, a joint Army-Navy panel had warned that the Atlantic and Pacific coasts were particularly vulnerable to seaborne attack. A year later, then Secretary of War William Crowninshield Endicott oversaw a board that began a program to establish heavily armed fortifications on the East and West Coasts. His name would become synonymous with the process that continued up to and immediately following the Spanish-American War. As a center of major manufacturing and the location of important naval facilities, Rhode Island became the site of powerful batteries that would continue in varying degrees through World War II.
Among the early fortifications was one to be built at Watch Hill, named in honor of Col. Joseph K.F. Mansfield. He had risen to become Inspector General of the Army and was later killed at the Battle of Antietam in the American Civil War. In 1898, the government bought up some 60 acres of shorefront on the Napatree peninsula and started construction at the edge of Sandy Point, a bend in the Napatree land spit. The 1938 hurricane cut Sandy Point away from Napatree just beyond the site of Fort Mansfield. Today, it is a mile-long, 35-acre islet in Little Narragansett Bay, lying partly within the town of Stonington, Connecticut.
Construction of the fort’s three heavy caliber concrete open gun pits supported by number of wood-framed facilities moved quickly. The main installation was Battery Wooster, housing a pair of 8-inch M1888 disappearing guns (and named for Revolutionary War General David Wooster who was killed at the Battle of Ridgefield, Connecticut).
Battery Crawford (and named for Emmet Crawford, an Army officer killed while pursuing Geronimo in 1886) was armed with a pair of 5-inch M1897 guns on balanced pillar carriages. The pillar mounts proved to be unstable and they were later disabled in the up position.
The third emplacement, Battery Connell (honoring Army officer James Connell who was killed in the Philippine-American War), housed two 5-inch M1900 guns on pedestal mounts. On completion in 1901, the fort was fully manned by some 228 soldiers.
Not long after, it was discovered that it had an insurmountable problem. In July of 1907, a series of well-publicized war games was held to test the effectiveness of the Fort Mansfield defenses. The exercise proved to be quite an attraction to the locals who lined their cars along the beach road and clambered out to the shoreline to watch. At night, searchlights playing on the water looking for imaginary invaders also drew large crowds. A review of the exercise revealed that enemy warships would have been able to approach the coastline on an angle that was not covered by the heavy-caliber 8-inch guns of Battery Wooster. Enemy capital ships could easily destroy the Mansfield fortifications and then proceed to attack New York.
Although the war games may have provided a diversion for vacationers and local residents, they convincingly demonstrated that the fort was vulnerable not only to attack by sea, but by infantry assault on the shoreline. Army Col. Charles Parkhurst, in a review of the mock attacks, said that given the poor angle of the fort’s field of fire, “I could capture Fort Mansfield with a fleet of coal barges equipped with 6-inch guns.” That pretty well sealed the fairly brief service life of Fort Mansfield. Within two years, it was removed from active status and placed under a caretaker force that was by 1916 reduced to only six soldiers. The fort’s guns were pulled in 1917 for potential use overseas during World War I.
In 1926, the government managed to unload the now useless land to private ownership. At one point, a developer wanted to build nearly more than 670 cottages on small individual plots. Opposition quickly arose in the local community and in 1928 the land was sold to a private syndicate that sought to preserve the character of Watch Hill. Fort Mansfield’s remaining wooden structures were quickly razed, leaving only the three concrete gun emplacements. Battery Wooster and Crawford are still visible, but Battery Connell has fallen victim to Nature and the erosion that has changed the configuration of Napatree Point over the years. Once in a while, what is left of Connell becomes visible at a low tide.
Napatree became a popular summering spot into the 1930s. A number of comfortable cottages were built facing the oceanfront and the beach was enjoyed by many visitors. On September 21, 1938, New England was struck by the unexpected and devastating hurricane that took hundreds of lives and caused millions in damages across the Northeast. On Napatree Point’s Fort Road, some 42 people were in their houses and 15 were killed when the waters swept over the low-lying landmass leveling the homes. The storm also destroyed Battery Connell and severed Sandy Point from the mainland. In 1940, Sandy Point islet was deeded to a Connecticut man, Alfred Gildersleeve, whose family later donated the islet as a nature preserve. The remainder of Napatree was acquired by the Watch Hill Fire District in 1945.
This writer’s book “World War Two Rhode Island” notes that Watch Hill was included in the state’s coastal defenses. But, in the years between the two world wars it became evident that an enemy attack would come from aircraft, by submarine, or small craft. Watch Hill was defended between 1942-44 by a battery of four mobile 155mm guns placed on circular concrete “Panama” mounts, located at the Oak’s Inn Military Reservation overlooking Misquamicut State Beach (private homes now occupy the site). A 16-inch battery for Watch Hill had been proposed for Misquamicut, but never built. Instead, a pair of the heavy caliber naval guns were installed at Point Judith as part of Fort Greene. Thus, the lower end of Rhode Island and the entrance to Long Island Sound was well protected.
Today, visitors walking the trails of Napatree Point enjoy a serene experience, marked by the still brooding, slowly deteriorating ruins of the Fort Mansfield batteries at the end of the point, some marked with graffiti and subject to the continued effects of nature’s reclamation by wind and water. The non-profit Watch Hill Conservancy and the Watch Hill Fire District cooperatively protect the integrity of the land working with federal agencies to watch over the endangered birds that call the point home. Periodically, volunteers have worked to preserve the remains of the fortifications. Fencing and some additional measures have also been placed by the Fire District to reduce access to the ruins.
Napatree Point remains one of the state’s great, unspoiled treasures thanks to the work of dedicated volunteers and the non-profit Watch Hill Conservancy and Watch Hill Fire District. As with any protected conservation area, there are rules to be followed by visitors.
To learn more, visit the website “thewatchhillconservancy.org”.