A FORT OUT OF NOWHERE

towersatcapehenlopen

I often make the near three-hour journey from the Washington, D.C. area to the Delaware beaches. I have an excuse to actually visit in winter as I have family living in the area, but I’ve often found appeal in visiting beaches at all times of year. The ocean never ceases to exist (and astound, for that matter). Its raw power is even more apparent once the tourists clear out and the weather blows in.

This past Saturday I spent the early part of the day lingering around the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk, taking in an old favorite – Grotto Pizza – for lunch. The weather was hovering somewhere in the mid-50s, with a chill coming off the ocean. The hard, packed sand made for a much easier beach stroll than in the summer, so I made my way well past the boardwalk and towards Cape Henlopen State Park.

Horseback riding is a popular activity along the Cape's shores

Horseback riding is a popular activity along the Cape’s shores

Cape Henlopen is arguably one of the better Delaware State Parks, most of which are famously well kept (perhaps this is to make up for the lack of any National Park sites whatsoever – the only state in the union without one). Henlopen offers a wide variety of activities and sites and is opened year-round, which actually does make some sense, as winter weekenders still flock in for tax-free shopping.

The towers of Cape Henlopen in the distance

The towers of Cape Henlopen in the distance

I walked for about two hours, past the two World War II lookout towers that dot the Southern Delaware shoreline. I made it almost to the point of the Cape – turning back inland at the Great Dune, which is one of the higher coastal points in the area. I actually had no real idea how far I walked until I found the main State Park thru-way and walked a little ways down it. Eventually I came across something I had no idea even existed!

Fort Miles as it appears from the nearby observation tower

Fort Miles as it appears from the nearby observation tower

Fort Miles. Yeah, there’s a fort here, with various cannons and anti-ship guns dotted about for good measure. It’s not a large fort, and not one in the traditional image that you might think. Basically it’s a row of low-lying barracks that make for an easy walk through (and an unique skateboarder scene – as you may see on an off-season weekend here) with a large battery near the shoreline (which is roped off and only made available during private tours).

fortmilesgun2

This one means business…

Now – with all the WWII lookout towers being built along this part of the coast, it is no surprise that a fort or military base existed here. The fact that astounded me most is that I, after visiting the area since the early 90’s, had no knowledge of this place. Neither did anyone in my family. The fort was built in 1941 to ward off potential German landings and was actually completed three days before the Japanese hit Pearl Harbor and forced us fully into the war. The fort saw little action in its fifty years of service, but was manned by 2,000+ people at its height. It actually became a “resort” of sorts from the 70’s up until 1990 for servicemen to take a holiday. This “downgrade” in official activity coupled with the fact that hardly any military action took place in the years prior makes Fort Miles one of the more quirkier little military posts to visit. Nobody died here, heck, nobody was even hurt, but that doesn’t make it any less important to the good people who were posted here. A repository of information is available at fortmiles.org for those who want to dig a little more.

A ground level view of the barracks

A ground level view of the barracks

I imagine most tourists don’t flock to this area to tour a rather obscure U.S. military site, leaving Fort Miles off the radar for all but the most veteran beach dwellers to discover. A fully restored lookout tower is across the street, and climbing to the top gives off a great view of the landscape surrounding the cape (and is well worth it, as there aren’t many good views to be had in this part of one of the flatter states in the union). A trip to Delaware isn’t really complete without taking in Cape Henlopen – one of America’s first public-use lands. You might be surprised at what you find!

(For more information on Fort Miles from Delaware State Parks – click here)

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