California State Military Department
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Preserving California's Military Heritage
Historic California Posts
Fort Cronkhite
by Gordon Chappell
Regional Historian, Pacific West Region
National Park Service

Fort Cronkhite in Marin County was the newest and last of the many military reservations which defended the Golden Gate and San Francisco Bay with their heavy guns, and it represented the ultimate outer ring of coast-artillery defense, for it was to be the site of one of two two-gun batteries of sixteen inch guns in the defenses of San Francisco, and these were the largest guns used by the United States.

Installation of the mighty 16-inch guns in the defenses of San Francisco became a matter of serious discussion as early as 1915, although planning at first was oriented toward siting the guns at Fort Funston, southwest of San Francisco and south of the Golden Gate. In 1928, however, the Adjutant General of the Army announced that there would be two batteries of 16-inch guns, one on either side of the Golden Gate. These guns had a range of roughly 26 miles, a far cry from the two and a half mile range of the guns of the 1850s, which could barely control the narrowest part of the Golden Gate Strait between Fort Point and Lime Point. These large modern guns could instead keep an enemy fleet far out at sea, hopefully far enough so that enemy guns would not be in range of the city and the harbor.

But the guns were not built for many years. It was not until the 1937 appropriation that Congress approved expenditure of funds for the purchase of land at Tennessee Point on which to build the-immense battery. The army acquired about 800 acres north of Rodeo Lagoon and northwest of Fort Barry by condemnation in 1937, the deed being recorded on June 21.

In March 1938 excavation on Wolf Ridge for the new firing platforms began. In a secret letter dated December 31, 1937, the new battery was named for Major General Clarence P. Townsley, who had commanded the 30th Infantry Division in France in World War I and who had died in 1928. Fort Cronkhite itself had been named only a couple of weeks earlier, on December 17, 1938, for the recently deceased Major General Adelbert Cronkhite, who had commanded the 80th Division during World War 1.

Battery Townsley and its reserve magazine both were completed and transferred to the Coast Artillery Corps in July 1940. On July 1, the first 16-inch round ever fired from the Pacific Coast of the continental United States was fired here.

In addition to Battery Townsley, an antiaircraft battery designated AA Battery No. I consisting of three 3-inch guns was completed on Wolf Ridge above Battery Townsley on August 26, 1940. In July 1941, three batteries of mobile 155 mm. guns were similarly emplaced, and over a period of years five fire control stations were built on Wolf Ridge.

The cantonment of World War II-type wood frame "temporary" barracks, mess halls and kitchens, orderly rooms, and other structures at Fort Cronkhite was actually built there before America entered World War II; its buildings were rushed to completion during the spring and early summer of 1941, and Battery E of the 6th Coast Artillery established the first garrison on June 20, 1941, while finishing touches were still being put on the barracks. America entered the war, of course, on December 7. 1941, when the Japanese attacked the naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Despite the tidy quarters, the men who manned Battery Townsley far above on the point lived within the concrete walls of the battery, for the guns of Battery Townsley had to be ready for action in fifteen minutes or less in time of war.

By 1944 the threat of Japanese attack had receded into the Western Pacific, and Fort Cronkhite took on a new mission as a Commando Combat School, the first in the Western Defense Command, which began operation on January 4, 1944. It was discontinued in December 1944.

Fort Cronkhite remained important in post-World War II years. Radar fire control increased the accuracy of Battery Townsley guns, until nuclear weapons and missiles rendered them obsolete around 1948. In 1955, Nike missile battery 88 was constructed at Fort Cronkhite. The radar control site, 88C, was on the top of Wolf Ridge to the north, while launching site 88L was northeast of the World War II cantonment near the base of the ridge, and administrative site 89A consisted of concrete block buildings replacing some of the temporary frame structures in the eastern half of the World War II "temporary" complex.

Today the western half of the Fort Cronkhite cantonment has been identified by the National Park Service as a historic complex to be preserved as representative of World War II "temporary" barracks and other structures once so common across the nation, but now fast disappearing.

Postscript

Since the above article was written in in 1981, very little changed at Fort Cronkhite. The National Park Service and its partners have maintained the military appearance of the post and have proved to be good stewards of this historic installation.


Batteries at Fort Cronkhite

Name

Number of Guns

Model of Gun

Model of Carriage

 Date Started

 Date Completed

Date Decommissioned

Townsley

2

16 inch MarkIIMI

 Casemated Long Range Barbette M1919M5

 1937

 1940

1948
Anti-Aircraft #1

 3

3 Inch M1917
M1917 Pedestal

1941

1941

?


Fort Cronkhite Today
 

For more information of Fort Cronkhite, click on the National Park Service's Fort Cronkhite Website

Originally Published in 1981 for the annual meeting of the Council on Abandoned Military Posts. Reprinted with permission of the author

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