Gateway National Recreation Area: Fort Hancock Women’s Barracks

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Welcome back to National Parks & other public lands with T! If you are seeing this on Twitter or Facebook, please visit the blog to see all of the photos and read the story by clicking the link.

March is Women’s History Month in the USA and this Friday is International Women’s Day, so today I am highlighting a stop on the New Jersey Women’s Heritage Trail.

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The Women’s Army Corp was formed during World War II. Women were given stateside non-combatant positions so that the men who would normally do those jobs could be sent into combat.

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WAC soldiers were first assigned to Fort Hancock in New Jersey in 1943 and were originally destined for clerical positions. The women proved so invaluable to the war efforts that their roles expanded to the motor pool, commissary, finance office, etc…

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The WACs were assigned to building #25. Known as the WAC Mansion, the building was 17,000 square feet and luxurious by army standards.

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Today the Women’s Barracks is in need of repair, but fared better than some of its neighbors did during Hurricane Sandy. The National Park Service has offered many of the fort’s buildings for lease…lessees will be responsible for restoration and maintenance while preserving the historic integrity of the site. When I visited in September, there was an ‘under contract’ sign posted here, so hopefully it will soon receive some much-needed TLC.

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This is a few buildings over from the Women’s Barracks and has partially collapsed. The Park Service does not have the funds to restore all of the Fort Hancock buildings so has begun leasing them out. The Marine Academy of Science and Technology has a building adjacent to this one and may rebuild it to expand their campus.

My other posts on Sandy Hook:

Location: 128 South Hartshorne Drive, Highlands, NJ 07732

Designation: National Recreation Area

Date designation declared: 10/27/1972

Date of my visit: 9/30/2018

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Gateway National Recreation Area: Fort Hancock

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Welcome back to National Parks & other public lands with T! If you are seeing this on Twitter or Facebook, please visit the blog to see all of the photos and read the story by clicking the link.

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Fort Hancock was built to defend the entrance to New York Harbor in the late 1800s.  It was active through both World Wars and the Cold War, converting to a missile base when the old gun batteries became obsolete. It was deactivated in 1974.

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The Fort Hancock Museum is in the Guardhouse which was built in 1899. This building served as the military jail for the base.

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Restoration of the building began in 2010 but then suffered serious damage during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

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In September 2018, the museum was re-opened to the public. It showcases artifacts from all periods of the peninsula’s long history.

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My other posts on Sandy Hook:

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Location: 128 South Hartshorne Drive, Highlands, NJ 07732

Designation: National Recreation Area

Date designation declared: 10/27/1972

Date of my visit: 9/30/2018

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The fort, together with the proving ground, became a National Historic Landmark District in 1982
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A revolutionary war era musket ball, discovered during a recent archaeological dig conducted by Monmouth University
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The fort was named for General Hancock who was a war hero at Gettysburg and the Democratic nominee for president in 1880. He lost the election by a narrow margin to James Garfield.
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New York’s skyline as seen from the top of the lighthouse with one of the 1800s gun batteries in the foreground. The peninsula is continually being extended by tidal sand deposits so the battery was closer to the water when it was built.

Gateway National Recreation Area: Sandy Hook Light Grand Re-opening

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Welcome back to National Parks & other public lands with T! If you are seeing this on Twitter or Facebook, please visit the blog to see all of the photos and read the story by clicking the link.

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I attended the Grand Re-opening festivities for the Lighthouse and Post Museum at Sandy Hook last month.  The historic lighthouse had been closed for about 10 months to correct issues with the foundation and structure that were manifesting themselves in stains on the exterior. The Fort Hancock Museum had been closed since 2010 and suffered a major setback during 2012’s Hurricane Sandy.

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The $1.3 million dollar cost of the renovation was funded primarily by the parking fees beach-goers are charged during the summer months. The park’s non-profit partner, Sandy Hook Foundation, also raised money to restore both structures.

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The program began with a presentation of the flag by a local academy’s color guard, along with the national anthem and pledge of allegiance.

 

The mayors of Highlands and Middletown, a county Freeholder, a senior Coast Guard official, the superintendent of Gateway National Recreation Area and the Commissioner of the National Parks of NY Harbor were all in attendance and spoke briefly about the significance of the Lighthouse and Fort Hancock.

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Commissioner Joshua Laird spoke of the lighthouse as a member of the NY Harbor Parks family, having borne witness to two and a half centuries of American history. Superintendent Jen Nersesian spoke of the lighthouse as a survivor, having outlasted several wars and major hurricanes. And we were all reminded by the Coast Guard official that the Sandy Hook Lighthouse is older than Boston Light’s ‘new’ lighthouse and is therefore the oldest functioning beacon in the US.

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The speeches were followed by a ribbon-cutting, first at the lighthouse and then at the Fort Hancock Museum (housed in the old military jail.)

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There was cake and lemonade in the Lighthouse Keeper’s Quarters (which serves as the visitor center.) There were also some people dressed in Revolutionary War era costumes providing living history demonstrations.

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After cake, I waited on the line for a few minutes to walk up to the top of the lighthouse. Because of the narrow and steep spiral staircase, only eight people were allowed up at a time. The line moved fairly quickly and before I knew it, I was at the top, looking down on Fort Hancock, the Batteries and the New York skyline.

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I headed over to the museum for a slide show and talk about the archaeological digs conducted by Monmouth University while the renovation was in progress.  Artifacts as far back as the revolutionary war were discovered.

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This was a fun event and it was great to see the community involvement in saving these Historic Landmarks. I found out about it through Facebook, of all places, but I’m glad I did!

My other posts on Sandy Hook:

  • Sandy Hook
  • Grand Re-opening
  • Sandy Hook Light (coming soon)
  • Fort Hancock (coming soon)
  • Women’s Barracks (coming soon)

Location: 128 South Hartshorne Drive, Highlands, NJ 07732

Designation: National Recreation Area

Date designated or established: 10/27/1972

Date of my visit: 9/30/2018

 

Gateway National Recreation Area: Sandy Hook

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Welcome back to National Parks & other public lands with T! If you are seeing this on Twitter or Facebook, please visit the blog to see all of the photos and read the story by clicking the link.

Sandy Hook in New Jersey is one of Gateway National Recreation Area’s three geographical units. The other two are in Staten Island and Queens, with the three parks framing the ‘gateway’ to New York Harbor.

I grew up on Staten Island and Sandy Hook was the closest beach to us for summer Jersey Shore trips. We’d load up the station wagon with family, friends and beach paraphernalia and head ‘down the shore’ several times during the hot summer months each year. Without a commercial boardwalk, it was the quietest beach within our day-trip radius, but we still left bright and early to avoid the traffic.

As kids, we thought of it as a welcome escape from the heat and a chance to body surf in waves less gross than on the Staten Island beaches. We didn’t realize that the peninsula had more to offer than the beach just after the entry gate or a life outside of July and August.

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Spermaceti Cove Life-Saving station was built in 1894 as a base from which to rescue shipwreck survivors

I started visiting Sandy Hook again in recent years when a group of friends hosted a photo meet there on a mild March day. We spent the entire day walking the northern end of the peninsula, beginning at Fort Hancock.

Fort Hancock was built in 1896 and served as a primary defense of New York City up through the cold war. In 1954, operations were converted to a Nike missile base. The fort was decommissioned in 1974. There is still an active Coast Guard station just north of the fort.

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What remains of the fort are the ruins of the batteries and the distinctive row of yellow houses (Officer’s Row.) When I visited with the photo group in 2014, little more than a year had passed since Hurricane Sandy had devastated these buildings and the charter school located in the complex. The school was rebuilt shortly afterwards and I’m guessing the homes have now been stabilized as well because the NPS is bidding out 60 year leases for them (according to their website.)

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Sandy Hook is also home to the Sandy Hook Lighthouse. Sandy Hook claims to be the oldest lighthouse in the USA, and indeed, every time I post a photo of it on social media, a few fervent admirers will sing its virtues as THE oldest light still in use.

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However, I have been to Boston Light and heard exactly the same thing from the lighthouse-obsessed couple that live on that isolated island and keep the light running when not conducting tours.

People who love lighthouses are very passionate about them and their claims to fame.

So which IS the oldest working lighthouse? It looks like Sandy Hook might actually be the winner by a technicality. Sandy Hook was built in 1764. The ORIGINAL Boston light was built in 1716 but was destroyed by fire and rebuilt in 1783. Thank you, Wikipedia!

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Leaves of three, let it be!

That same year, I chaperoned a class trip to Sandy Hook for my daughter’s middle school. There were rangers and environmentalists on hand moving the kids through stations to learn about various aspects of the local ecosystem.

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We learned about the horseshoe crab, a living fossil that has been on this earth for 450 million years. Their blue blood is invaluable to the medical industry and there is no synthetic substitute for it. Over-harvesting has led to a marked decline in the population in recent years and the species is threatened.

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We were too late to save this one

After learning about the horseshoe crabs, the kids went out on to the beach and rescued the ones that had been beached by turning them over near the shore line and watching them swim away with the next wave.

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This one happily swam away with the next wave

A year or two after the field trip, by the miracle of Instagram, I discovered that there were seals to be seen in Sandy Hook during the cold winter months! I checked the NPS website and found that I could sign up for a free ranger-guided viewing of the seals. We met our ranger at the lighthouse and caravanned to an undisclosed location. The NPS is having trouble with people traumatizing wildlife for the sake of photos, or doing plain stupid things like taking selfies with grizzlies for social media, so the rangers asked us not to post location specifics. Remember folks, it is a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act to come within 100 yards of the seals, so if you are lucky enough to see one on the beach, keep your distance.

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When we got to the viewing spot, the rangers set up some telescopes so we could see the seals more clearly. Even with my longest lens, the photos were still pretty far off, so we were in no danger of harassing a marine mammal that day. It was still pretty exciting to see them!

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Another great thing about Sandy Hook in the off-season is that dogs are allowed. There are lots of great paths winding through the fort area towards the beach at the very tip of the peninsula. On a clear day, you can see lower Manhattan from this beach.

And in the summer, I hear it’s a nude beach…no dogs or cameras allowed. 🙂

Location: 85 Mercer Rd, Highlands, NJ 07732

Designation: National Recreation Area

Date designation declared: 10/27/1972

Date of my visit: March 2016

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