A Towering Presence

For years, Delaware beachgoers have wondered what those odd structures on the sand were. One man, Horace Knowles, has always known.

Shore Stories

July 10, 2006|By JOHN WOESTENDIEK | JOHN WOESTENDIEK,SUN REPORTER

LEWES, Del. -- Tower 7, as it's known, is 65 years old and 110 feet tall, scratched with graffiti and whipped by decades of salty ocean winds - but it remains nearly as solid as the day it was hurriedly built by a country on the verge of war.

Horace Knowles is 84 and about 5-foot-10. He is still standing tall, too, despite circulatory problems and respiratory issues that force him to use a portable oxygen tank when he takes his memory-stirring walks through the dunes over which the tower looms.

Once, they - the tower and Knowles - shared a mission.

Knowles was one of about 2,000 soldiers dispatched - nearly a year before Pearl Harbor - to a barren stretch of beach near the mouth of the Delaware Bay to build a fort and man the heavy artillery that would protect America's shores from enemy attack.

Tower 7 is one of 11 curious concrete cylinders that rise from Delaware's coastline, from its southern edge in Fenwick Island to Cape Henlopen, all built to provide a vantage point from which the coordinates of enemy ships could be relayed to gunners, such as Knowles, stationed in nearby bunkers.

As it turned out, no enemy ships were ever fired upon. The low-profile oceanfront fort, as radar and weapons technology progressed, was obsolete even before World War II was over. And Knowles' unit, the 261st Coast Artillery, quietly went out of existence afterward, its work protecting America's coast rating only a paragraph or two, if that, in most history books.

What was known as Fort Miles all but disappeared when, in 1963, the federal government began turning the land over to Delaware's state park system.

Once the site of one of the heaviest concentrations of artillery on the East Coast, it became Cape Henlopen State Park, a place for vacationers to forget about their troubles and frolic in the sun.

Concrete block barracks became vacation cottages. What was once a gun battery became a bathhouse. The fort's brig became a nature center. And the wharf used to service mines laid in the Delaware Bay became a fishing pier.

As for the towers, they've endured far longer than anyone expected, including the Army Corps of Engineers, which predicted - because beach sand was used in mixing the concrete - they would only last about 20 years.

Instead, they've stood three times that long, most of that time idly, surviving freeze and thaw, careless tourists, and, in the case of the two towers across from Gordon's Pond in the state park, the ocean itself.

Although built nearly a quarter-mile from the shoreline, both now have waves lapping at them during high tide.

Mostly, for 40 years, they served to shelter sea birds and baffle beachgoers: Were they ugly lighthouses? Lifeguard stations? Silos for storing extra beach sand?

Tourists wondered, and while park employees did their best to explain, misconceptions spread.

"The younger generation is not well aware of what went on in these towers," Knowles said as he walked down a path in the state park. "And it's a damn shame."

Knowles, who after the war went on to a career with DuPont, the chemical company, takes walks in the park three times a week, clutching a bag that contains his portable oxygen, wearing a cap that says 261st Coast Artillery and - as skateboarders and bicyclists whiz by - recalling days when this swath of beach served a far different purpose.

Generally, his walks are undisturbed. But the other day, he said, a woman stopped him. "She said, `You were stationed here, weren't you?' I said yes, and she thanked me. She said, `Thanks for doing that.'"

Knowles paused to catch his breath. "There's not many people that thank us."

`A barren place'

Horace Knowles was 19 when his Delaware National Guard unit was federalized in early 1941 and sent to Cape Henlopen for what they thought was a three-day training exercise.

On the third day, though, orders came to stay and build a fort on the land, which had been acquired by the War Department in 1938 as World War II loomed.

"It was just a barren place, no water or anything," said Knowles, who was in charge of putting up the tent city that - while quaintly referred to as "Camp Cranberry" by those who were building it - would evolve into a heavily fortified, $24 million Army base called Fort Miles.

Other than the patches of berries, it was far from paradise. There was no running water, and for the first year soldiers took baths out of their helmets. Foul odors wafted over regularly from a fish processing plant in Lewes. There were biting flies, cold winter nights and, until a dining hall was built, the constant crunch of sand in your food.

The fort was one of dozens that sprouted on U.S. soil in the prelude to World War II, many of them built to protect the estuaries that led to large port cities - in Fort Miles' case, oil refineries up the Delaware River, chemical plants in Wilmington and the Naval Shipyard in Philadelphia.

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