Historical Marker Dedicated at Big Stone Beach

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11By Terry Rogers

On Saturday, September 5, the Delaware State Archives dedicated a historical marker to recognize the only remaining Fire Control Towers used by Fort Saulsbury. The towers were considered the eyes of the fort, with five of them placed along the Delaware Bay in an effort to protect the shoreline from attack during World War II.

“This sign was the brainchild of one of our members, Jerry Wright,” said Dean Betts, President of the Big Stone Beach Civic Association. “We contacted State Representative Colin Bonini and Representative Jack Peterman, both of whom represent this area. They each gave us $1,500 toward the placement of this marker and this set into motion a plan to get the marker dedicated in order to try to preserve this piece of history.” Mr. Betts said that Representative Harvey Kenton, who was in attendance at the dedication, also offered to supply funding, but the amount given by the other legislators more than covered the cost of the marker.

According to information gathered by Mary Betts, the wife of Mr. Betts and a member of the Big Stone Beach Civic Association Board of Directors, the Fire Towers were not used to watch for forest fires. Instead, they were named for the methods used to control the firing of the big guns, housing observers who watched the waters rather than the land.

The process for firing the guns was actually complicated. Once a target was identified, it had to be confirmed as “Friendly or Foe,” tracked for movement and a location plotted. That information was then used along with other variables to calculate a firing solution that was given to the gun crews with an azimuth and elevation determination. It was only after all these steps were undertaken that a command to “fire” could be given.

The cannoneers used additional variables, such as the observers elevated view of the target, the visibility over the horizon, barometric pressure, temperature of the gun powder, range of the target vs. the range of the guns, surface and aloft winds as well as the projectile time in flight or the time it would take the projectile to reach the target. They also considered the firing rate of the gun, reduced visibility and night operations along with moving targets that often employed zig-zag courses.

The Fire Towers were added to Fort Saulsbury when it appeared that there was a possibility for another war to break out, just before World War II. Five towers were constructed but should not be confused with the concrete towers associated with Fort Miles further south along the Delaware shoreline, although they did serve a similar purpose. The five towers were located in South Bowers Beach, Big Stone Beach, Fowler’s Beach, Broadkill Beach and Cedar Beach. The Cedar Beach tower was closest to the fort.

Each tower had at least two decks while some had three. Each deck had specific equipment and was assigned to one of the gun batteries at the fort. There were two main telescopic devices in each tower – the M1 Depression Range Finder, which was used for distance viewing, and the M1910A1 Azimuth Instrument, which was used for direction determination.

Unlike the towers or Fort Miles, the towers used for Fort Saulsbury were made of metal and corrugated siding. The tower dedicated by the Delaware State Archives was identified as Tower 13. It was placed on a plot that was one half of an acre, located 350 feet from the low water mark. There was a ten-foot right-of-way from the plot to the bay to allow for communication cables that were laid to connect the towers with the fort. The tower is 70 feet tall with the framework rising above the sand about 48 feet. The tower had three viewing floors, each of which is about seven feet tall and about 11 feet square.

“Unfortunately, only the ospreys observe the bay from the top of the tower now,” Mr. Wright said. “There was a roof until the 2008 flood when half of it blew off. The other half blew off in later storms. It would be great if we could find a way to fund a replacement roof for the structure.”

Representative Kenton said that he remembered coming to Big Stone Beach as a child with his father and finding artillery shells in the sand from time to time. “This was our vacation spot,” Representative Kenton said. “The tower has always been here and I can remember playing with some of the shells we found on the beach. I’m pretty sure that was extremely dangerous. I am very thankful that the people of Big Stone Beach took the bull by the horns and made this marker happen.”

Sarah Denison of the Delaware Public Archives said that it was through the efforts of legislators like Representative Kenton who were always happy to provide funding for the historic marker program. She said that just under 600 markers had been placed throughout the state since the program began in the 1930s.

“We have placed more markers than ever in the past year, I believe,” Ms. Dennison said. “They serve an important purpose in the state as it is the best way to tell the stories of Delaware.”

The marker placed in front of the tower, which is located at the end of Bowers Beach Road just before the small parking area used by beach goers, reads: The metal observation tower at Big Stone Beach was one of five constructed in Delaware between World War I and II to reinforce nearby Fort Saulsbury. Those towers formed an integral part of the fort’s fire control system. Built from metal and corrugated siding, each tower featured two or three observation decks; each deck supported by a particular gun located at Fort Saulsbury. Military personnel positioned at the Big Stone Beach tower first worked to identify and confirm enemy targets, then relayed the information gathered to the fort. This tower is the only remaining tower used to support Fort Saulsbury, which was decommissioned in 1946.