Forts Baker, Barry and Cronkhite, San Fransisco, CA USA
Forts Baker, Barry and Cronkhite are excellent examples of early coastal defense structures, comprising 2,279 acres of uplands and tidelands along the north side of San Francisco Bay extending west from the Golden Gate Bridge out to the Pacific Ocean. This land, strategically located in Marin County, commands early observation of the Bay entrance. The fortifications proposed for construction on this land were to augment those at the Presidio of San Francisco, in order to prevent successful passage of hostile ships through the Golden Gate into the San Francisco Bay. During the period between the two world wars (1918-1941) the fortifications at Forts Baker, Barry and Cronkhite were continually modified to keep abreast of the increased range and firepower of naval ships. During World War II (1941-1945) these fortifications were modernized with anti-aircraft defense systems and defense against motor torpedo boats. From World War II until the present, batteries of ground to air missiles were provided on these three forts to defend the San Francisco Bay Area against hostile aircraft.
During World War II, Fort Baker was designated Mine Command Headquarters, responsible for laying protective minefields across the Golden Gate (by 1945, its waters were laced with 481 submerged mines). The small, makeshift Boat Repair Shop struggled to maintain the vast mine flotilla at the outset of the war, necessitating a major expansion that added a new, sizeable Marine Repair Shop and 100-ton launchway in 1943. Several WWII-era buildings remain, including the Cable Tank Building (1940), the Mine Storehouse (1940) and the Marine Repair Shop. Just beyond the marina lies Battery Yates (1903), its six rapid-fire guns once poised to defend against enemy vessels entering the Golden Gate.
Today, the Travis Sailing Center occupies several historic WWII waterfront buildings, where they conduct sailing lessons, operate a marina and undertake small boat repair using the lone surviving boatway in Fort Baker. The Bay Area Discovery Museum for Children also occupies several of Fort Baker’s historic buildings, with plans to convert the remaining structures into a retreat and conference center, scheduled to open in 2006.
Fort Barry’s first battery, Battery Mendell (1901), featured two 12-inch breech-loading rifles (manufactured at San Francisco’s Bethlehem Steel) capable of firing an 1,100-pound projectile over eight miles. Batteries Samuel Rathbone and James McIndoe (1904-1945) defended the minefields outside the Golden Gate during World War II. Owing to its panoramic views of the bay, Fort Barry also served as a mine groupment command post during the war, ensconced in concrete stations along Bonita Ridge dating from the 1900s. Within Fort Barry’s scenic Marin Headlands location is a 1921 balloon hangar (now used as horse stables), a WWII garrison and a 1941 chapel serving as to the National Park Service’s Marin Headlands Visitor Center. Many empty gun emplacements are accessible to the public and provide spectacular views of the rugged shoreline. The non-profit Headlands Center for the Arts occupies several rehabilitated Army buildings–including Building 944 and Building 960 (both 1907)–which are occasionally open to the public for special exhibitions and performances. The Golden Gate Hostel provides spartan accommodations in a former hospital ward and general’s quarters overlooking the parade grounds. However, Fort Barry’s most visited attraction is the SF-88 Nike Missile Museum–the Nation’s only officially restored Nike Missile site. A dedicated group of Nike veterans and volunteers have restored the anti-aircraft installation to near pristine condition.
Fort Cronkhite’s trademark beachside barracks were completed in 1941, typical of thousands of wartime barracks once found from coast to coast. A year earlier, Battery Townsley (1940-1948) had become the first 16-inch gun ever fired in the continental United States, its two massive rifles capable of hurling a 2,100-pound shell 27 miles out to sea. Battery Townsley was complemented by three smaller anti-aircraft guns dotting Wolf Ridge. At wartime, soldiers manning coastal batteries needed to be battle-ready with 15 minutes notice. As a result, those working the guns at Fort Cronkhite practically lived within Battery Townsley’s cement walls, rarely straying beyond the fort’s barracks and mess hall. In January 1944, as the threat of a Japanese attack subsided, Fort Cronkhite became the first commando combat school in the Western Defense Command.
Today, Fort Cronkhite is largely unchanged from its days as a combat school, with the notable exception of the curriculum: its historic barracks are now occupied by the Headlands Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to environmental education. Barracks #1059 (1940) has been restored to its original appearance, with period furnishings that reflect its use during World War II, the Korean War, and the 1960s.
Forts Baker, Barry and Cronkhite, partially administered by the National Park Service’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area, are located on the north side of San Francisco Bay extending west from the Golden Gate Bridge out to the Pacific Ocean, in Marin County. All three forts are within walking distance of the Marin Headlands Visitor Center, accessible from the Alexander Ave. exit of Hwy. 101 north. Follow signs for the visitor center–turn left onto Bunker Rd., proceed two miles to Field Rd. The visitor center is open daily 10:00am to 5:00pm, except on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Please call 415-561-4700 or visit the park’s website for further information.