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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Fort Heath and Fort Dawes – Winthrop MA
Fort Heath was in a section of the town called the Highlands. This area was hilly compared to the rest of the town.  Winthrop Beach ended its northward trek as the land began to get hillier and rockier, ending in a headland in the Highlands known as Grover’s Cliff. Here in 1898, Fort Heath was built as a Coast Guard Artillery fort and became part of the Boston Harbor Defenses. It was named after a General in the American Revolution, William Heath, who was also a Massachusetts delegate to the Federal Constitutional Convention. Three twelve inch guns were installed in the battery at Fort Heath. Along with the 16 12-inch mortars at nearby Fort Banks, Winthrop became the most heavily armed location in the harbor defenses.

After WW2, the fort was decommissioned but from 1960 to 1964, it became the location for the AADCP or the Army-Air Defense Command Post for Boston’s Nike Missile defenses. The US Air Force added two Air Defense Command height finder radar units. These were attended by the 820th Aircraft Warning and Control Squadron. These radar defenses were continually operated by the US Army and Air Force until 1966 when the FAA began operating the radar. The fort was declared surplus on Sept. 1, 1966.

Today, all traces of the fort and its defense machinery have disappeared. This area now has a small park and several apartment buildings.

Fort Dawes wasn’t really in Winthrop, but at its very edge. If one took the bus to Point Shirley, you would find that the bus came to a place where it needed to turn around to complete its route. Where the bus turned around was a guard post, usually with two MP’s on duty. All traffic, at this point, pedestrian, vehicle, bicycle, what have you, would turn around and head back from whence it came. This was where Winthrop joined Deer Island. This narrow stretch of land was formerly known as The Shirley Gut. On the other side of that guard post was Fort Dawes.

It was the largest of the three forts at 100 acres and the largest in the Boston system. In 1907, the Army built the first few buildings, one of which was a mine observation station. Fort Dawes began as a command and fire control center. Leading up to WW2, a Harbor Entrance Command Post was built.  Artillery and gun placements were planned for Fort Dawes, but by Sept. 1944, it was determined that the United States was at a very low risk for an attack by sea, so the placements were never completed.

Today the entire peninsula is dedicated to a water treatment plant that serves 43 nearby towns and is the second largest treatment plant in the country. Around the edges, is a mile or more of paved walk way where people can enjoy the view of the Harbor Islands or rest a bit at one of the conveniently placed benches. There’s plenty of ships coming and going in the harbor to provide visual entertainment while taking a breather. It’s difficult to remember what it was like to be in a town with three forts all within a mile and a half on one another. But I do remember a dread, a fear that war could come to our shores, especially during the cold war. There was some sense of comfort knowing that those three forts were there to protect us all.

Fort Dawes, c. 1939

This photo of the fort looks northwesterly and likely dates from about 1939 (note the filled-in channel at top between Winthrop and Deer Island). It is a rare aerial view, and comes from the archives of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA). It was taken by an unknown photographer. The photo has been enhanced and cropped by and the red arrows have been added. The northern and central arrows point out the fire control structures (FCSs) at the fort, and the southern arrow indicates the searchlight shelter (with the searchlight track curving away to the northeast). The line bisecting the spine of the island is the boundary fence of the fort, which separated it from the Deer Island House of Correction and the water treatment plant. The 100-foot elevation of the east-west hill at the center of the image made this site valuable for fire control. In this photo, none of the gun positions at the fort had yet been constructed

Fort Heath with Winthrop Beach stretching off into the distance. Fort Dawes is at the tip of the gray strip of land at the center top of this photo.


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