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Battery Townsley

Started: 2017-04-30 21:20:17

Submitted: 2017-04-30 22:20:21

Visibility: World-readable

2 April 2017: In which the intrepid narrator visits a gun emplacement overlooking the Golden Gate

The land around San Francisco Bay is littered with coastal fortifications from various eras, built to defend the bay as new technologies emerged, and then abandoned as they became obsolete. The final generation of operational coastal artillery were casemated gun batteries with two guns capable of firing 16-inch shells, with an effective range of at least 25 miles -- all the way to the horizon. There are a couple of these gun batteries around the Golden Gate -- the closest to my house is Battery Davis at Fort Funston -- but most of the batteries have been sealed with concrete. Only one is open for tours -- Battery Townsley in the Marin Headlands -- and it's only open for a couple of hours on the first Sunday of each month.

Battery Townsley and the Golden Gate
Battery Townsley and the Golden Gate

On the first Sunday of April I convinced Calvin to come to the battery with me.

Fort Cronkhite
Fort Cronkhite

We parked at Fort Cronkhite and climbed the trail up the hill to the battery. I'd walked past the battery before, and seen the massive gun barrel set outside of the battery. As we approached the docents manning the battery asked if we wanted to take the tour of the battery and were excited when I said yes (and also that we'd come here specifically to see it).

Calvin with a 16-inch armor-piercing shell
Calvin with a 16-inch armor-piercing shell

Our guide showed us pictures from the battery, and from other guns like it. This battery was one of the batteries that proved that a casemated gun battery would work at all; apparently the Army first thought they would just leave the guns sitting in the open. The casemate was a giant concrete bunker surrounding the gun, protecting it from air attack from above, covered by an earthen berm with camouflage to disguise its position and protect against artillery hits.

Calvin walks inside Battery Townsley
Calvin walks inside Battery Townsley

I've walked through parts of Battery Townsley and its sister batteries before -- the main corridor leading up to the gun pits are always open, but the connecting corridors are not. This tour took us into the human-sized door in the middle of the hill, past the blast doors that could be sealed against a gas attack, and through the generator room that held the generators necessary to power the gun. (The battery was supplied with power from the local electric utility to keep the lights on under normal circumstances, but the grid power wasn't enough to operate the motors that aimed the gun -- and I presume the Army would have wanted the gun to be operational with the grid power down in the event of an attack.)

Main corridor inside Battery Townsley
Main corridor inside Battery Townsley

Half of the main corridor was blocked by a giant steel tube that had been installed after the battery was decommissioned and had been used to channel the explosive force of various bombs to structures built on the far end of the tube to see precisely how various construction techniques would survive in the face of a nuclear bomb. (The answer: not well.) We went down the other end of the corridor, past the powder storage rooms and the magazine storing the massive high-explosive 16-inch shells.

16-inch shells in magazine inside Battery Townsley
16-inch shells in magazine inside Battery Townsley

Our guide showed a picture of the gun being loaded -- one shell followed by five or six powder charges each about two feet long. The powder charges were wrapped in silk to prevent sparks, and the men assigned to the powder room wore shoes without metal nails to avoid setting off the powder. All of this would be loaded into the breech to fire the gun. The gun barrel itself was more than 40 feet long, and was the same size as guns mounted on the last generation of battleships. When fired the gun would rattle windows in San Francisco. These guns -- along with guns up and down the Pacific coast -- were never fired in anger; the Imperial Japanese Navy was never able to mount a serious assault on the US mainland, aside from a few insignificant submarine attacks. The war proved that battleships, and naval artillery, were no longer the most important naval weapon. After the war the artillery batteries were decommissioned and replaced by surface-to-air Nike missile batteries to defend against the Cold War's new threat.

Salamander swimming in the gun pit at Battery Townsley
Salamander swimming in the gun pit at Battery Townsley

The guns were removed at the end of the Second World War. In their original construction the guns sat in massive gun pits, and these gun pits had been abandoned to the elements in different ways. In some batteries the pits were filled with concrete; in others they had filled with sand or dirt drifting in from the ocean. At Battery Townsley one of the gun pits had filled with water, and now had a colony of salamanders living in it. This was great for the salamanders, but made historical preservation difficult because now they'd have to undergo an environmental review to get a salamander-removal permit.

Calvin descends the trail
Calvin descends the trail

We left the battery and climbed the hill to a handful of observation posts ("base end stations", in Army artillery lingo). Apparently the Army had built a road further up the headlands to another site that they hoped would work as a decoy.

Fort Cronkhite and the Golden Gate
Fort Cronkhite and the Golden Gate

From our perspective perched above the Pacific Ocean we could hear the clanging of a buoy in the ocean, and see all the way across the Golden Gate into San Francisco. We retraced our steps down to the hill to our car and returned to San Francisco, having seen another interesting facet of our new home.

Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Skyline from the Marin Headlands
Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Skyline from the Marin Headlands
this is a neat, if unintelligable, hack
- Jaeger's comment in BMAS::Service::Domain, 11 October 2002