It’s about time to recognize some fascinating facts about Gateway National Recreation Area, Sandy Hook, Fort Hancock and the Sandy Hook Lighthouse.
The whole peninsula is really Fort Hancock and is designated a national landmark. So is the Lighthouse, which makes the lighthouse a national landmark within a national landmark!
At one time, the Hartshorne family owned the entire peninsula and much of Middletown from which Highlands was carved, as well as the Navesink and Locust sections of Middletown. Then, in 1814, the Secretary of the War purchased the entire peninsula in order to provide protection for New York Harbor. The peninsula was then known as “The Fortifications at Sandy Hook”. For the rest of the 19th century and well into the 20th Century, the Army used, built, installed, fortified and always provided that protection for the ever growing and bustling New York Harbor.
The Army Corps of Engineers established a permanent presence on Sandy Hook in 1850 to manage construction of the fortifications. This engineer post, called a “Superintendency”, resided where the US Coast Guard is now located. While buildings that supported the Engineer mission have all since disappeared, the Corps continued to build fortifications and later housing and support facilities, for another 70 years.
In 1870, Congress stopped the construction of masonry fortifications while it waited to hear from the Secretary of War about what modern harbor defenses should consist of and how best to provide them. That report, named for Secretary of War William Endicott was delivered in 1885 and is what convinced Congress and the Army to change construction to reinforced concrete and adopt modern breach loading steel weapons. After the first several gun batteries were completed, the Army then began construction of the “cantonment area” – or what we now know as the “Fort Hancock Historic Post” - to house the troops that would operate the defenses. This construction began in the mid-1890s and coincided with the renaming of the peninsula.
In the late 1860s, the Army was in search of a new location to test or rather “prove” weapons. In 1874 the Army temporarily settled on the Sandy Hook Peninsula. That whole piece of land from where the Capt. Azzolina bridge crosses the Shrewsbury to the tip of the Hook, was indeed the location for the Sandy Hook Proving Ground, at least temporarily until a final selection was made by the Army, while at the same time continuing to provide critically needed harbor defenses.
About 21 years later, Army General Order number 57, issued in October 1895, designated the Fortifications of Sandy Hook be renamed Fort Hancock, again, including the entire peninsula. That the peninsula’s name was official was further documented the following year when Congress authorized construction of a Coast Artillery post, those buildings which remain today, all the buff brick buildings in the “Fort Hancock Historic Post” section of Sandy Hook.
The 20th century made it even more certain the Army owned the entire peninsula. In 1903, that temporary proving ground became a permanent Army installation called the “Sandy Hook Proving Ground” and remained that until 1919, when the proving ground function was moved to Aberdeen, Maryland, where it remains the nation’s only proving ground today. Fort Hancock remained, as it had been for half a century, the Army installation in defense of New York Harbor.
The Army closed, but did not give up, Fort Hancock in 1950. During that closure, the Secretary of the Army transferred a tract of land to the Secretary of the Treasury for the Coast Guard Station. But Fort Hancock reopened roughly three months later, once again in support of New York, guarding it against Soviet bombers during the Korean War. At the same time, the Army began installing antiaircraft weapons with guns, and later those NIKE missiles still visible today.
In 1964, the Army determined that it no longer needed a portion of the peninsula to support its mission. The Army leased the southern portion to the State of New Jersey for a State Park. This park operated until 1974 when the Army revoked the lease and turned the entire peninsula, except for Coast Guard property, to the Department of the Interior.
As result of the Nuclear Arms Control Treaty, the NIKE system was abolished. When this happened, the Army no longer needed Fort Hancock and it was deactivated in 1974 and closed once again, with preparations to transfer the Army’s real property holding of the peninsula from the Secretary of the Army to the Secretary of the Interior. This was completed in 1978. The transition was in accordance with federal law signed in 1972 that established the Gateway National Recreation Area (GNRA) and designated the Sandy Hook Peninsula as the “Sandy Hook Unit” of GNRA. In 1984, the Secretary of the Interior designated the Sandy Hook peninsula the “Fort Hancock and Sandy Hook Proving Ground National Historic Landmark District”.
At the same time, the Army Reserve units which were operating at Fort Hancock after the closure remained and their facilities were transferred to the Park Service with a license for the Army. It wasn’t until 1992 that the Army moved its last units from Fort Hancock, leaving its long and illustrious history behind.
What a history it is! With a presence from the earliest days of the republic, through the Civil War and the late-Cold War, the Army has provided defense along the seacoast with Third System and Endicott System fortifications as well as protected airspace with anti-aircraft guns and Nike missiles. It served as the cradle for Army technological development and temporarily as an ordnance proving ground. Its residential units, barracks, post exchange, school and hospital along with other buildings provide a glimpse of life in a garrison community during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
So in actuality, the entire unit of Gateway National Recreation Area should be re-named and officially known by what it is: Fort Hancock-Sandy Hook.
The Army Ground Forces, that volunteer unit of men and women who tirelessly and consistently restore portions of the fortifications and teach about the history of the Fort Hancock peninsula, have copies of many official documents on their web page which can be downloaded at https://armygroundforces.org/location.html. The maps will show all the building numbers as they correspond to what is there today, a key in understanding more about the history of the Fort Hancock-Sandy Hook peninsula.