Local historian and photographer C.H. Echols (note from 2015: please see editor's note below) of Yorkway asked about the concrete tower that rises from the grounds of the Fort Howard VA Medical Center immediately opposite the Fort Howard Range Light. When C.H. asks me questions, I am immediately suspect. I figure that he probably already knows the answer and is just testing me. It's not like he doesn't know local history.
But a good question is a good question. I have seen the tower at issue many times and often wondered at its origin and purpose. I originally assumed it was some type of navigational marker because of its proximity to the range light. Perhaps mariners line up the tower and the light to perform some special feat of navigation.
But long ago I spoke with Frank Dean, an avid Chesapeake Bay sailor. He explained to me, ignorant lubber who is still pulled by the sea that I am, that navigational markers aren't generally all that useful if they can't be seen at night. And, as he also pointed out, a mariner lining up the light and the tower dead ahead would be aiming his vessel at the VA hospital.
So the tower must have had some other purpose. I discounted that it was the most boring and poorly labeled war memorial ever made and turned to the most reliable resource on Fort Howard history I know. I called Buzz Chriest.
As I suspected, Buzz knew the skinny. As it turns out, the tower is a remnant of the old targeting and ranging system used by the shore batteries back when Fort Howard was a real fort.
As I have often written, Fort Howard was built in the 1890s to modernize Baltimore's harbor defenses (we hadn't been attacked by sea since 1814). The Army built primary and secondary shore batteries and sunk a series of TNT "torpedoes" or sea mines to be detonated via underwater cables that ran to shore. These impressive installations turned the mouth of the harbor into a killing zone for potential enemy ships.
(note from 2015: the original threat posed by the Army's decision to build the fort was posed by the mighty navy of his Catholic Majesty during the Spanish American War [April,1898 to August, 1898] should they attempt an assault on Baltimore. Old Chesapeake salts at the time observed observed at the time that we didn't need a new fort; we just needed to remove or darken all of the navigational markers in the Bay. The reasoning went that there is no way one could navigate a steel hulled warship, even being guided by kidnapped local pilots, past the notoriously random shoals, shifting sand bars and other underwater hazards of our beloved waterways without, the buoy, beacons, lighthouses, etc. A stranded Spanish battleship would make a great target for U.S. mobile artillery our the gunboats of our Navy.
No one listened to them. Of course no one in power successfully questioned the ludicrous claim of a potential Spanish attack. I suspect we got the fort through the maneuverings of canny Maryland politicians in the U.S. Congress by attaching earmarks (pork) to the federal budget. Oh well. We needed a fort anyway. But if we every got attacked by sea again, the Navy did something very, very wrong.)
But artillery and even remote-controlled sea mines are useful only if you can actually hit what you're aiming at. That's where the tower comes in.
As Buzz pointed out, shore battery service in the U.S. Army in the early part of the 20th century was extremely demanding. Not only did the soldiers need to be physically fit and have the intestinal fortitude to work around tons of explosives, they also needed to know a lot of math.
When the fort became fully operational in 1902, the army relied on azimuth triangulation to determine target range. This method required two observation platforms to determine how many degrees the target was to the east or west of the observer's position. Since the spotters knew the distance between the towers, they then could calculate the distance from the guns to the target through the use of trigonometry.
As we all vaguely remember from high school, if you know the length of the base of a triangle and the degrees of the angles at either end of the base, you can calculate the length of the other two sides. The vertices of the ranging triangle are the observation towers and the target. Gunners had charts and tables to reconcile the distance of the guns from the towers and could, thus, aim their fire with murderous accuracy.
And they did. Before 1910, the base won awards as the most accurate shore battery in the United States.
But the system relied on some very important basic factors. First you need two towers. According to Buzz, the twin to the one near the hospital still stands, though it is now covered in vines and weeds, at the mouth of Shallow Creek about half a mile away. These towers were used to determine the range to ships in the minefield so that the mines could be accurately detonated. The gunners relied on a different set located behind and to either side of the batteries. These towers have since been torn down.
A second thing you need for the system to work is a precise knowledge of the distance between the towers. Army engineers used special lengths of chain and made allowance for temperature so that they were sure of the distance within three-eights of an inch.
At the top of the tower was an azimuth instrument through which the target's angle from a baseline could be determined. The device could not be jiggled, so the actual observation tower was built around a concrete platform. The inner tower, the one that survives, was connected to the outer structure by a huge rubber gasket to suppress vibrations.
By World War I, compact optical ranging systems replaced the azimuth ranging method. But gunners were trained on the towers as a backup. The towers were abandoned with the rest of the fort in the 1940s.
The azimuth tower now stands as a silent reminder of a vigilant past. That's pretty poignant stuff given recent events. The guns were never fired in anger, so perhaps the system deterred an attack somewhere in our history. So maybe the tower is, in fact, a peace memorial.
(first published in 2001)
Editors note: Charles “C.H.” Echols Jr. was a friend of mine. He was a talented photographer, archivist, historian, writer and raconteur. He served the Dundalk-Patapsco Neck Historical society as its official photographer for more than 40 years and collected pictures of the town that pre-dated him that created a pictorial history of Dundalk. He wrote and compiled several books about the area, including including Battle of North Point, Flying Boats Over Dundalk and Dundalk’s Forgotten Past. He was a compelling storyteller and his recollection demonstrated an incredible knowledge of even the smallest facts of Dundalk history. As a columnist writing about the history of Greater Dundalk, I found C.H. to be an invaluable resource. But, more importantly, I found him to be a good man who would go out of his way to help others and who truly cared for his community. I hadn't spoken to him in several years before his passing, and I deeply regret that. C.H. died on July 12, 2013. He was 96.