coast defense

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Fort Dawes

Fort Dawes, formerly located on Deer Island, is sort of the "dissappearing man" of Boston's harbor defenses. Once the largest fort in the Boston system (at 100 acres), Fort Dawes began as a command and fire control center. During the run-up to WW2, two modern batteries (Batteries 105 and 207) were planned for the fort, but these were cancelled before completion. Only one of the fort's batteries, Battery 944 (the 90mm AMTB guns on the south tip) was actually made ready to fire during WW2. Following the war, Battery 207 was armed (using the gun tubes that had been dismounted from Battery 208 at Fourth Cliff) for test purposes, and there are news reports that it was fired.

In the 1990s, all traces of the fort were blown up, dug out, and bulldozed away as the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) took over all of Deer Island to build the world's second largest sewage treatment plant. The total destruction of this fort makes describing it a challenge.

The following panels describe the development and layout of the fort. Details of its gun batteries, fire control structures, and other facilities are also covered. Clicking the headings will open or close the content panels.


In 1907, the Army completed construction on the first few buildings of Fort Dawes. These were clustered at the north end of the fort, and included a Battle Commander's station (from which a senior officer could direct the harbor's defense against attacking ships) , a dual mine observation station (part of the spotting system for detonation of controlled mines in the harbor's northern channels), and two more fire control structures (FCSs) at the north end of the island (which handled fire control for five separate gun batteries scattered around the harbor).

At that time, Deer Island (which today is a peninsula jutting south into the harbor from Winthrop) was still an island. A desolate place that had been the site of an almshouse (see Slide 2 in the top gallery at left), a quarantine hospital, a sewage pumping station, and a county jail in the period 18450-1870, Deer Island had some natural assets that made it ideal for coast defense. Two fairly tall hills, one (elevation 40 ft.) at its northern end, and another larger one (100 ft. high) at the center of the island, were excellent sites for fire control structures (FCSs). The fact that the island was more or less in the center of Boston's harbor mouth and extended out toward the ocean also suited to for the design of gun batteries that would guard the harbor's center. [An excellent history of Deer Island can be found here. It should also be emphasized that the island has been completely re-graded (both excavated and filled), so that today it bears little topographical resemblance to what existed when Fort Dawes was in service. Compare, for example, Side 1 with Slide 6 in the top gallery.]

In 1924, four more fire control bunkers were built on the central hill, supporting fire control for several more batteries and housing the Battery Commanders of the harbor's then most potent weapons, the 12 12-inch coast defense mortars of Bttys Kellogg and Lincoln at Ft. Banks in nearby Winthrop. At this point, Fort Dawes looked essentially as shown in Slide 1 at top left.

With the coming of WW2, a Harbor Entrance Control Post (HECP) was built in 1942 atop the island's central hill--just in front (east) of the reservoir shown in Slide 1. This nerve center that controlled harbor traffic was manned by both Army and Navy personnel and monitored al lships passing in or out of Boston Harbor. A decision was also made to construct on the southeast shore of the island Boston's third battery of huge 16-inch guns (Battery 105), and to build a battery of the new, rapid-firing and longer-range 6-inch guns (Battery 207) just in front of the central hill and the HECP (see Slide 4 at top left).

But by the time the casemates for these two batteries had been completed (September, 1944), it had been recognized that the United States was at very low risk of a seaborne attack, and the guns were never installed. A third "non-battery" was also sited at the extreme south end of the fort: the two 3-inch guns of Battery Taylor, which had been moved (along with the battery name) from Ft. Strong on Long Island. Later, this area was used for anti-motor torpedo boat (AMTB) Battery 944, a pair of 90mm guns.

Since all traces of Fort Dawes have been wiped away by later development on Deer Island and because original photographs of the fort are scarce, maps of Fort Dawes' facilities are about all we have left to describe and understand the fort.

A basic overview of the fort's layout is given by the 1938 map in Slide 3 at the top left. This map shows the clusters of fire control structures (FCSs) on the low hill at the north of the fort and on the taller central hill. The BC/CRF station at the southern tip was built for Battery Taylor and was later taken over by AMTB Battery 944.

We can be sure of the location of these stations because the locations of some of their observing instruments were precisely surveyed by the Army Engineers as part of setting up Boston's WW2 fire control system. Although the the original fire control structures have been demolished, and their geodetic marks (often brass disks set in the roofs of the fire control bunkers) have been destroyed or re-graded, their coordinates are still carried by the database of the National Geodetic Survey (NGS).

Slide 8 shows a modern aerial photo (a Google Map) of the area of the fort that was once the "central hill," with the locations of many of its FCSs indicated by "map pins." The red boxes tied to some of these pins contain the FCS designations assigned by the author for the fort's central FCSs. All of these lie beneath the modern sewage treatment facilities of the MWRA and thus have almost surely been destroyed.

Slide 4 shows an enlarged plan of the central and southern portions of the fort, together with plans of Battery 105 (the 16-inch guns at right-center) and Battery 207 (the 6-inch guns at left center). The positions of the two guns of Battery 944 (the 90mm AMTB battery which was the only one at the fort to actually became operational) and its rangefinder station are shown at the southern tip of the island. The listing at lower right in Slide 3 shows the PIDs (see note above) for various of the observation stations.

Slide 5 shows a sketch map of the WW2 facilities at the fort. together with their official Site designations. The locations of the three batteries (105, 207, and 944) are indicated, along with the radar tower (Site 1K), the mine casemate (Pm2) on the north end, and the HECP, high on the central hill.

Slide 5 and Slide 6 at top left show two modern photos of the island. Slide 6 clearly shows the modern topography of the island, which is vastly different from that of the old fort. [In this photo, I have indicated the former position of the HECP, based on the data in Slide 8] This photo also gives an excellent view of how Fort Dawes dominated access to the harbor, along with the guns of other forts. Slide 7, thought to be from about 1970, is included here to give some idea of the former topography of the island.

Construction on Battery 105, with its two 16-inch guns, began in November of 1942 and was completed less than two years later, in August of 1944. It was decided, however, not to install the guns in the massive concrete casemates, and the battery was never occupied.

Battery 105 followed the standard construction plan for batteries of this type, of which Battery 104 at East Point in Nahant was another example. If completed, this battery would have been the central prong of a three-prong array of these huge guns, together with the 16-inch guns at Nahant and Hog Island in Hull (Battery Long at Fort Duvall).

Slide 9 and Slide 10 at top left show the remains of 16-inch Battery 105 during the process of demolition (c. 1990) that made way for the construction (under Federal court order) of the MWRA sewage treatment plant. Slide 11 shows the view easterly across the island, looking at the rear of the 16-inch battery.

Battery 207 was laid out in a standard, so-called "200-series" design for the longer-range M1 6-inch guns procured at the start of WW2, and it was built on the eastern coast of the fort roughly in front of the central hill (see Slide 4 at top left). Construction began in September 1942 and was completed in October, 1943. This battery's fate was similar to that of the 16-inch Battery 105-- its guns were never installed during the war, and it ended up being ripped out and bulldozed over in the 1990s by the demolition contractor to the MWRA.

But in a brief repreive after WW2, it was recommended by the Tilton Report that the guns which had been installed at Fourth Cliff (Battery 208) be taken from there and installed at Battery 207 as part of Boston's post-war defense. This was apparantly accomplished, since the Boston Daily Globe of 28 June 1948 reported an upcoming planned test firing later that week (by First Army personnel) of the guns of Battery 207.

Battery 206 in Nahant and Battery 208 at Fourth Cliff were designed on the same plan as Battery 207, and these other batteries can still be seen today.

Battery 944 was in fact the only one at Fort Dawes that was actually ever made operational. It was completed on September 20, 1943. The battery included two of the new, rapid-firing 90 mm guns (Model 1) on T-3 carriages. These guns were located at the very tip of the southern end of Deer Island, and faced ESE out to sea. Two positions for mobile guns (likely 155 mm GPF cannon) were also graded out, but these were never used.

The guns of Btty 944 were offset slightly to the southeast from the two gun emplacements that had been planned for the 3-inch guns of Battery Taylor (see next panel below), and in fact made use of the fire control station, with a magazine underneath it, that had already been built for Battery Taylor. That FCS was located about 100 ft. northwest of Battery 944's Gun 2.

Slide 14 of the top gallery at left shows the site plan for Battery 944, along with the gun positions of Battery Taylor and the location of fire control station/magazine. The generator buildings that are indicated on the plan were needed because these guns could be traversed and fired electrically, thus requiring a substantial electrical plant. A photo of the fire control station, taken in about 1989 (shortly before it was demolished by the MWRA) , is shown in Slide 13.

Battery Taylor was originally one of the four batteries of two 3-inch guns (M1902 on BC M1902) that were constructed at Fort Strong in 1906. These guns served the role of minefield defense and protection against torpedo boats or other small, fast craft. An RCW for the "new" Battery Taylor suggests that WW2 work to prepare gun blocks and to mount these guns on Deer Island was completed in August of 1942, but the 1945 Annex to the plan for HD Boston states that in May, 1943, the "new" Battery Taylor was ordered dismounted and held on Deer Island for "spare parts" (likely for the other WW2 3-inch batteries). A glance at the plan in Slide 14 shows that it would have been very difficult to fire both batteries' number one guns at the same time. Battery Taylor's tactical number (#8) was left blank (unused) in the list of WW2 batteries.

All told, there were 11 fire control structures (FCSs) at Fort Dawes. These were built more or less in three waves. The first wave, completed in 1907, was concentrated at the north end of Deer Island and also included the old Harbor ("H") Station, which was located at the very peak of the island's central hill. The second wave, completed in 1924, added four FSCs on the central hill. The final wave of construction occured just prior to and during WW2 and involved building the new Harbor Entrance Control Post (HECP) atop the central hill and remodeling the re-purposed BC/CRF station at the southern tip of the island.

To simplify description of these 11 structures, has given each one a unique label. In addition, because the Army Engineers surveyed the precise locations of each FCS, we have included the six-character code (PID) that uniquely identifies that structure's latitude and longitude. The whereabouts of these structures are pictured in Slide 1 of the lower gallery at left, and the labels we have assigned them, together with their dates of construction and their associated PIDs, are as follows:

  • Dawes H Station--1907 (MY0117)
  • Dawes G1 FCS--1907 (MY4540)
  • Dawes Mine Station--1907 (MY4452)
  • Dawes FCS North-1--1907 (MY4468)
  • Dawes FCS North-2--1907 (no PID: station abandoned)
  • Dawes Central FCS-1--1924 (MY4577)
  • Dawes Central FCS-2--1924 (MY4578)
  • Dawes Central FCS-3--1924 (MY4580)
  • Dawes Central FCS-4--1924 (MY4545)
  • Dawes HECP--1942 (MY4543)
  • Taylor BC/CRF--1943 (MY4576). (This became BC/CRF for AMTB Btty 944.)

Nine of the 11 FCSs listed in the preceeding section were of pre-WW2 vintage, completed either in 1907 or in 1924. Although we do not have a surviving photo of any of these structures, most of them seem to have been similar to each other: single-story concrete bunkers or manholes (with wooden or concrete roofs) that differed only in the size of their footprints.

FCS North-1 and North-2 were both 1907-vintage wood-roofed cooncrete buildings each of which had three observing stations, with each station in an adjoining 12x12 ft. square room. Slide 2 of the lower gallery at left shows front and rear elevations, a cross-section, and a floor plan for one of these FCSs (FCS North-1). However, this slide shows the FCS as it was modified in 1944 into a more "hardened" WW2 design. These buildings had earth mounded up in front of them so that the centers of their viewing windows were only about 3 ft. above ground level. The 1907 Mine Station was similarly constructed, except that it contained two 12x12 ft. observation bays instead of three.

One of the 1907-vintage FCSs was more elaborate. The G1 FCS (Battle Commander's Station), at the west side of the north end of the fort, had a 18x16 ft. tower with an observing room rising over a first floor 18x30 ft. telephone room that offered cubicles for 11 telephone operators. It also had a large room for that seems to have offered sleeping quarters for the Battle Commander.

The four 1924-vintage FCSs on the island's central hill were what are called "manholes." This means that they did not have doors that swung open to the outside. Instead, they were accessed by a hatch or an opening in the roof that led to a ladder going down. These manholes were Central FCS-1 and FCS-2 (each 10x10 ft. square) and Central FCS -3, which was only 6.5x6.5 ft. square. Details are not available for Central FCS-4.

The final pre-WW2 FCS was the old "H" (Harbor) Station, located at the top of the central hill--a sort of precursor of the nearby HECP of WW2. This too was a 1907-vintage, wood-roofed, 12x12 concrete building, but with a door, taking it out of the "manhole" category.

During the pre-WW2 period, the Battery Commanders for two of the harbor's most powerful batteries, the 12-inch mortars of Bttys Kellogg and Lincoln at Ft. Banks, were located at Fort Dawes, in the Central FCS-1 and FCS-2 stations respectively. These FCSs also served as BESs for these batteries. [Later on, but still before WW2, Btty Kellogg's command and spotting functions were moved to the Central FCS-4 manhole.] The 12-inch guns of Btty Winthrop at Ft. Heath in Winthrop were controlled from Central FCS-3.

The north end FCSs also served as base end stations for some of the harbor's mid-range guns. The 10-inch disappearing guns of Bttys Hitchcock and Ward at Ft. Strong were controlled from FCS North-2, while FCS North-1 spotted for the 10-inch disappearing guns of Bttys Burbeck and Morris, plus the 6-inch guns of Btty Terrill ( plus later on Btty Whipple), all located at Ft. Standish.

During WW2, all four FCSs on the central hill (see panel above) were re-used, but linked to different batteries than they were before the war. The old H Station on the crest of the central hill plus two of the northern stations (the Battle Commander's Station and the dual mine observation station) were discontinued. The other northern station, station North-1, was given a new, reinforced concrete roof in 1944 and re-purposed for WW2 to contain a BES for Battery Whipple at Ft. Standish, Mine Observation Station 1/2 (North Mines), and Observation Station C 1/2 (serving the North Command). [The other end of the North Mines baseline was Station 2/2 on Great Brewster Island, where the Mine Casemate controlling the North Mines during WW2 was also located.]

The old Battery Commander's (BC) Station for Battery Taylor at the southern end of Fort Dawes was re-purposed for WW2 as the BC station for Battery 944 (which took the place of Battery Taylor, which itself had never been made operational). And finally, the Harbor Entrance Control Post (HECP) was built new for WW2 on the crest of the central hill (see following panel).

During WW2, Central FCS-1 served as a BES for Battery McCook at Ft. Andrews. Central FCS-2, even though it was only a 10 x 10-foot manhole with a 6.5-foot ceiling, was designated as the BC Station for the new 16-inch Battery 105 (on which construction was suspended in November, 1942 and never completed). Central FCS-3 was planned as a BES for the 6-inch guns of Fort Dawes' Battery 207, but that battery also was not completed (until it was armed after the war, in 1947). Likewise, Central FCS-4 was planned as the BC Station for Battery 207 but never used during WW2.

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General Island Maps and Battery Images

  • Early-Aerial-Dawes-SG-Ann-950
    This photo of the fort looks northwesterly and likely dates from about 1939 (note the filled-in channel at top between Winthrop and Deer Island). It is a rare aerial view, and comes from the archives of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA). It was taken by an unknown photographer. The photo has been enhanced and cropped by and the red arrows have been added. The northern and central arrows point out the fire control structures (FCSs) at the fort, and the southern arrow indicates the searchlight shelter (with the searchlight track curving away to the northeast). The line bisecting the spine of the island is the boundary fence of the fort, which separated it from the Deer Island House of Correction and the water treatment plant. The 100-foot elevation of the east-west hill at the center of the image made this site valuable for fire control. In this photo, none of the gun positions at the fort had yet been constructed.
  • Almshouse-1849-E
    This 1849 print from the Library of Congress envisions the completion, in 1853, of the new Almshouse for the City of Boston, which was constructed at the northwest end of Deer Island (Slide 1 shows it c.1939).
  • Dawes-Map-1938-Ann
    This map has been annotated by to show (in red) unique labels for the various fire control structures (FCSs) at Ft. Dawes. The base map is from the Army Engineers, updated as of 1938, and carries some labels (in black) consistent with that date. For instance, the old H station at the top of the central hill (from the 1910-1920 period), although it shows on the map, was unused by 1938, and thus appears on the map labeled with an empty circle.
  • Dawes-btty-detail-map-clip-ann
    This map is taken from the 1945 HD Boston Annex and was drawn by the Army Engineers. It was cropped and annotated (in red) by The black base map shows the WW2 battery structures and other buildings, with the topography of the period. The small table (in red) at lower right shows the correspondence between the names of the fire control structures (see text) and their PIDs, or the permament identifiers for the markers set by the USCGS that identify the precise latitude and longitude of the markers.
  • Ft-Dawes-Map-1945-E
    This map, by the Army Engineers, also appeared in the 1945 HD Boston Annex. It shows the site designations for the various batteries, posts, fire control structures, etc. that existed during the war.
  • 2008 Deerisland Bostonharbor Docsearls Small-ann
    This beautiful image by Doc Searles is from Wikipedia and looks southeasterly across Deer Island. The topograpy of the island was radically changed by the construction in the 1990s of the MWRA sewage treatment plant. An arrow points to the approximate location of the former WW2 Harbor Entrance Control Post (HECP). This photo also shows how other forts were positioned to guard the inner harbor. Fort Warren occupies the smaller island just in front of Fort Revere in the photo, to the right of Fort Standish.
  • Deer-Island-c1970-S
    This undated image, from Wikimedia Commons, looks easterly at Deer Island. From the looks of the wastewater treatment facilities, it was taken about 1970. It gives an idea of the topography of the island at that time. The Deer Island House of Correction (with the cuppola) is at left rear. The "central hill" of Ft. Dawes is at center-right, above the waste settlement basins, one of the fort's features that can be positively identified here. The islands in the background are The Brewsters.
  • Deer Island Geodetic Marks-Ann
    This image is a screen capture from the Scaredy Cat Benchmark Viewer, and shows the precise locations of the HECP and several of the old Ft. Dawes fire control structures (FCSs), with respect to the current redevelopment of the island, which has destroyed them all. The points of the map pins near the labeled tags indicate the precise locations of the former survey marks.
  • Cashman-Btty-105-Demo-2
    This image is a screen capture from the website of Cashman Construction in Boston, and was taken as part of its $22 million contract to demolish the prison and parts of Ft. Dawes in preparation for the construction of the MWRA sewage treatment plant, likely c. 1991. [The company did not respond to attempts to contact it.] Gun 2 is in the foreground. The windowed wall the fills the opening in front of the gun platform is made of concrete blocks and was likely a temporary filler used in 1944 when the guns were not installed. Long Island and Fort Strong are at top, in the background.
  • Cashman-Btty-105-Demo-1
    Another view (from Cashman Construction) of Battery 105 during its demolition. The front of the emplacement for Gun 1 has been blasted away, while Gun 2's position appears relatively intact. The photo gives an idea of the topography of the fort's central hill, with the old brick sewer plant behind it.
  • Btty-105-Easterly
    This image, taken October 24, 1989, looks easterly at the back of Btty 105. The central portal of the battery is at right, and the portal to Gun 2 is at center. The cut at left center is being made to expose the battery's plotting room for demolition. Photo courtesy of MWRA archives--photographer unknown.
  • Bttsy-105&944-Southwesterly
    This image, likely made about 1989 before demolition began, shows Battery 105 (with Gun 2 in the foreground) and the BC/CRF station for Battery Taylor (and later AMTB Btty 944) on the low banks at left, in the background at the southern tip of the island. Fort Strong, across the harbor, is in the background at center. Photo courtesy of MWRA archives, photographer unknown. Adjusted and cropped by
  • Btty-944-CRF
    This photo (judging from the plan in the following slide) looks southeasterly at the remains of the Battery Commander's station and coincidence range finder (CRF) station for Btty 944. The entrance to the magazine beneath the station can be seen behind the brush at left. It appears that the reenforced concrete columns on the left side of the station here have been destroyed or seriously eroded. The small concrete hut at right may be "Building B" from the plan in the next slide. Photo c. 1989, courtesy of the MWRA, from their archives.
  • Btty-944-RCW
    This plan, from the RCW for the AMTB Battery 944, shows the two fixed and two mobile gun positions for that battery. It also shows how these positions were intertwined with the two former gun positions for the "new" 3-inch Battery Taylor (see the next slide), which had been previously been relocated from Fort Strong. If all four of the new gun positions ( 2 90mm amd 2 155mm GPF) had been occupied, Battery 944 would have been a potent force guarding the entry to the inner harbor.
  • Btty-Taylor-RCW
    This plan, from the RCWs for Boston, shows the planned placement of the two 3-inch guns M1902 of Battery Taylor, which were relocated from Fort Strong, but then were never mounted, being held instead at Fort Dawes as "spare parts." It also shows the details of the Battery Commander's/CRF station, which later came to serve this function for AMTB Battery 944 (see the previous slide).