One of the things on the schedule today is a very rare opportunity to visit a normally closed fortification. The tower was used as a “base-end station” for the Coast Artillery guns that secured Portsmouth Harbor. In World War II, the naval shipyard built scores of submarines, and early in the war a number of gun batteries were set up as part of the port’s defenses against surface ships and enemy aircraft.
Base-End Stations were used, two each, to triangulate the location of enemy ships. Each Base-End station had a plotting room (the team maintained its sync with the other station and the gun batteries with audible bells that sounded at intervals and were connected together by phone lines) and one or more sighting decks. Each sighting deck had one telescope for azimuth and a separately-operated one for elevation.
This particular tower had three different missions: the roof housed an Anti-Aircraft Intelligence Battery, the next deck down was a Base-End Station for a 90mm Anti Torpedo Boat Battery, and the next deck down from that was a Base-End Station for Battery Seaman, which housed two 16″ guns. The guns never fired a shot in anger; in fact, they only fired once, when they first came on line, and they never shot again. The guns themselves are long gone, but the fortifications that housed Battery Seaman’s guns still remain, decaying and decrepit. Along with the many batteries around the harbor, there were 14 Base-End stations of several different designs. Some have been demolished, some have been assimilated into beach houses, and this one at Pulpit Rock is the only one still in public hands.
Late in the war, it was clear that American shipyards were not going to be attacked by the receding Axis’s surface ships. Many of the Coast Artillery men were hastily retrained as riflemen and sent to bleeding infantry units as replacements. After the war, the towers and other fortifications struggled to find a raison d’être. Many were on private land that had been seized for the duration, and became white elephants that their private owners could neither use practically nor destroy economically. Some were used as hosts for radar stations during the development of the Air Defense Command’s Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (the first real computer network), but that testing was over by the end of the Eisenhower Administration. The Pulpit Rock tower was used to observe unlawful fishing by New Hampshire Fish and Game until the early 1970s; now the agency would like to unburden itself of the old white elephant, but the town of Rye (in which it is located) is leery of taking it over on cost and liability grounds.
So the long term viability of the tower is far from assured — all the more reason to go see it on one of the semiannual public tours.