Harbor defense construction on isle

A 10-inch rifle and soldiers at Fort Point in March 1898.


In the previous column, East End military history was covered from the post Texas Revolution — Fort Travis 1836-45 through the Civil War era Fort Sulakowski 1863-65.

The Endicott Period

In 1885, U.S. President Grover Cleveland appointed a joint army, navy and civilian board headed by Secretary of War William Endicott, known as the Board of Fortifications.

The findings of the board illustrated a grim picture of existing defenses in its 1886 report and recommended a massive $127 million construction program of breech-loading cannons, mortars, floating batteries and submarine mines for some 29 locations on the U.S. coastline.

Prior efforts at harbor defense construction had ceased in the 1870s. Since that time, the design and construction of heavy ordnance advanced rapidly, including the development of superior breech-loading and longer-ranged cannon, making the existing U.S. harbor defenses obsolete.

The Endicott Board’s recommendations led to a large-scale modernization program of harbor and coastal defenses in the United States, especially the construction of modern reinforced concrete fortifications and the installation of large caliber breech-loading artillery and mortar batteries.

Typically, Endicott-period projects were not fortresses, but a system of well-dispersed emplacements with few but large guns in each location.

The structures were usually open-topped concrete walls protected by sloped earthworks.

Many of these featured disappearing guns, which sat protected behind the walls, but could be raised to fire.

Mine fields were a critical component of the defense, and smaller guns also were employed to protect the mine fields from minesweeping vessels.

Fort Point 1897-99

Galveston was considered at the time of appropriations as one of the most valuable points on the coast for fortifications.

By 1897, funding for Galveston seacoast and harbor defenses was approved in the amount of $1.5 million dollars, and construction was underway.

By November 1897, Fort Point was fast gaining completion, with March 1898 targeted for active operations.

The detailed plans and technical construction of the works, however, were guarded as secret, thus the public was excluded from view and few were honored with permits to view the work as it progressed.

The Galveston News reported “through a spyglass” at a distance, hence: That it was a fairly formidable affair with a mass of concrete 20 to 30 feet thick protected on the sides with a sloping embankment of sand.

Behind the mass of concrete appeared to be at either end two shelves or benches upon, which it is supposed that the disappearing guns are to be placed.

On the rear of these shelves are a number of doorways, communicating in all probability with the magazines and storehouses of the battery.

The entire mass of concrete was honeycombed with rooms and passageways that afforded storage for many thousands of rounds of ammunition for the giant guns.

Fort Point batteries included the most modern labor-saving devices to be used for feeding this ammunition to the guns.

The government engineers quietly bought trolleys, blocks, cranes, stairways, electric motors and elevators in the city of Galveston.”

Batteries, torpedoes

Lt. Riche was in charge of the Fort Point fortifications and mapped out plans including armament and buildings.

For guns, two batteries were included initially, a gun battery consisting of two 10- inch sized rifles and a mortar battery with eight 12-inch steel mortars.

The Galveston News reporter was enamored with the 10-inch guns, and their “disappearing” design:

“The disappearing guns, however, are the great feature of the work, their carriages a joint invention of two ordinance corps officers of the United States, who labored to solve a problem upon which European inventors have worked with but little success.

“These great guns not only move about easily, but can so be lowered and depressed below the level of the top of the fort so that it cannot be seen or hit by the enemy.

“The gun is loaded while it is still under cover and aimed, so that when a lever is turned, up jumps this enormous mass of metal stretching its long murderous muzzle well over the top of the concrete wall.

“Once firing its enormous shell, the gun gently slides back and down and comes to rest in a position to again be reloaded, the great guns can be loaded and fired once every 4 minutes.”

But the length of firing time was not lost on Riche, in addition the short-term Spanish-American War in the fall of 1898 exposed the need for rapid firing guns, thus Riche added two separate batteries, one consisting of two rapid-fire 3-inch guns, and a second consisting of two 4.72-inch swivel guns, both designed for closer targets.

The torpedo station

The torpedo station was listed as incorporating the latest in design with torpedoes constructed to permit being exploded either with electricity or by means of a cable connection from the casemate — independently or in groups.

The casemate was located just east and south of the quarantine officer’s headquarters on the bay side and included a system of switches and buttons to explode the torpedoes.

The casemate from the outside resembled a pyramidal grass-covered mound, covering a structure of concrete and stone.

The only entrance was a door of extraordinary weight, the internal casemate was 12 feet high, protected by a layer of sand and dirt up to 35 feet, the entire mound with underground cable tunnels rose to a height of 45 feet.

Barracks, grounds

Not be overshadowed by other coastal installations, J.D. Newcomer, superintendent of construction for the quartermaster general of the Army, said Fort Point will “excel in its point of excellence,” and would be a source of pride to all of Galveston.

Plans included Macadam roadways, newly planted shrubbery and elegant buildings and structures, but all would require elevating the sea level grounds 4 feet.

$100,000 was earmarked for 12 new buildings, complete with water and gas and modern conveniences, including slate roofs, stamped steel ceilings, finely plastered walls and polished floors.

Included was a two-story hospital building with dining hall, laboratory and stewards rooms.

Next to these were four large buildings alike in size and designated for quarters, complete with large gallery, reception room, parlor and dining room.

The soldiers’ barracks were twice the ground plan size of the officers’ quarters, two story and complete with reception room, mess, library and billiards room.

Plans included a quartermasters building, guardhouse, non-commissioned officers building, blacksmith and carpenter shops, and bake house.

Completing the fort

The guns were test-fired for the first time in May 1898, the big 10-inch guns pointed at the end of the north jetty, the round clipping the stones, with the concussion blowing out several windows in the compound.

The Fort Point search light was tested for the first time in August, the large lamp required a 16-horsepower engine to generate the necessary electric power and required two railroad flatcars to carry the compliment of equipment.

The light, when positioned at the south jetty, could be seen for 10 miles and its reflection for 20 miles.

The completion of the fort brought upon the necessity to christen the facility with a new name based upon the name of significant historic events or people, thus San Jacinto was chosen because of the famous battle in 1836.

With his plans now implemented, Riche believed he had a solid coastal defense facility that could face any seaward threat, no matter how severe.

But what Riche was to learn the next year is that by cutting plans for pilings underneath two of the largest concrete batteries because of extensive costs, he had incorporated a fatal design flaw that would be exposed from a different seaward threat, which would achieve landfall Sept. 9, 1900, in the form of The Great Storm.

Mort Voller lives in Galveston and in several capacities has advocated for Galveston’s Natural Heritage. Kirk Clark is a process safety consultant and local historian with a passion for all things Galveston history.

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