Our readers help set the record straight on the Eastern Shore towers. And we get a little help from the Department of Commerce and American Machinist.
Welcome back to the Cruisers Exchange, where the emails have been coming thick and fast after our plea last month for a definitive answer to the purpose of the towers along the upper Eastern Shore of the Bay. When we had posed the question as a Cruisers Quiz question, we received answers that fell into three plausible categories: 1. Fire towers; 2. Ice flow monitors; and 3. Enemy ship watchtowers. After we had to confess that we didn’t know the answer ourselves, we asked our readers for help. And help they did! Only, of course, they didn’t agree. This time the answers fell into two categories, both of them utterly convincing. Here are just a few excerpts:
“The observation towers of which you write in the November issue were indeed fire watch towers—gunfire watch towers. They were used to triangulate the impact sites of ordnance being tested at Aberdeen Proving Ground. The artillery was located miles from the impact areas, thus they relied on azimuths from the observation towers to plot the impacts. . . . I spent a lot of time at my grandparents' home in Betterton, where the walls would rattle from the shellfire. My grandfather, William H. Fleckenschildt, was an owner of the Miss Milford, which carried firefighters from Betterton to Aberdeen and back while the testing took place.”
Hunter H. Harris:
“I am very familiar with towers, two of them in particular. We have one on the northern edge of our family farm on the bluff at Howell Point and another just south of the farm almost to Meeks Point. They are, or at least were once, used by the Aberdeen Proving Ground to measure the range of various big guns that they test there. They had powerful radios in the towers and some really interesting scopes mounted on rotating azimuths. As a kid I managed to visit the men in the towers occasionally using some fresh homemade cookies as a security pass.”
“I have a set of nautical charts from 1971, the year I began sailing on the Chesapeake Bay. The tower in your photograph and two others are clearly marked on the chart, along the Eastern Shore between Fairlee Creek and Rock Hall. Towers : "A" "B" and "C" are notated "lighted during ice flow".”
“My wife and I have cruised the Chesapeake for 48 years, and are well acquainted with the towers in your article. There was a series of these towers built from Swan Point to Howell Point. Some of them have letter designations on early charts. (Tower A, for example at Swan Pt.) They were built to be "lighted during ice flows". The quote is from an official 1978 "Guide For Cruising Maryland Waters" chart, tenth edition which I still have.”
So, fire and ice.
Now here’s a quote of our own, from the 1919 Reports of the Department of Commerce, p. 922:
“In May and April 1918, several towers had been located by John A. Daniels as far south as Worton Point. These were found inadequate in number and range for the large guns to be tested at the grounds, and the scheme was therefore extended south to Love Point, Kent Island. First a scheme of towers was selected using both sides of the bay (but the towers on western shore were found to be too close to the line of fire). It was then decided to place extra towers on the eastern shore and eliminate the western shore towers. In all there were 42 stations in the scheme, including 7 lighthouses and the 2 range lights on Pooles Island.”
But there’s a kicker in the final sentence of this article from American Machinist, 1919:
“To measure the ranges of projectiles an extensive system of 16 observation towers stretching for 30 miles has been built and equipped on the eastern shore of the bay. . . Observers spot the splashes of falling projectiles from their posts over 100 feet above the water level in the same way that forest fires are located in the Adirondacks, and in fact the towers will also be used for forest-fire location. “
So just about everybody was right. We love when that happens. Thanks everyone for joining in, it was a lot of fun. Here is the full text of all of the responses we have received since our cry for help. Feel free to add your own. Email us at email@example.com or hit the responses button below.
October 21, 2013
Believe that I can help to solve the mystery. The towers are part of Aberdeen Proving Grounds’ firing range test system that triangulates round impact points and also serves as a part of its range security system to protect the facility and to coordinate the safe passage of boats through the Bush River. The towers are identified as “A”, “B”, “C”, etc. Tower “A” is the main control tower for the range. I do not know if they are currently used. I have attached an article discussing Tower “A”. The other towers are similar in construction. When transiting the Bush River in the past I would communicate with Tower “B” to obtain permission for a safe passage. I got a chuckle from the statement in the attached article about the 280mm “small arms” rounds. That is a round that is just over 11 inches in diameter.
Hope that this helps.
October 22, 2013
Three words used in your column discussing the submitted guesses were correct: “fire”, “World War II”, and “observation”. During WW II, Aberdeen Proving Grounds would fire developmental munitions into the bay (and probably also at Pooles Island). The observation towers were used by army personnel to accurately locate the splashes by triangulation and therefore determine range and accuracy. Ever notice the chart notes that unexploded munitions may exist in the water in the Aberdeen area. Historical info. came from members of the Glenmar Sailing Association, Middle River, after I started boating in the early ‘80s. (I had wondered: why so many bird watching towers?).
I was very surprised that none of your readers correctly identified the use of the mysterious tower north of Worton Point. As a boy on the upper Chesapeake Bay during the early 50's everyone was very aware of the "Restricted Areas" and why we were not permitted to enter them. Army patrol boats roamed the area constantly keeping boaters outside of the danger zones.
The series of towers that stretch from Tolchester to Fairlee were observation towers used by Aberdeen Proving Grounds. Aberdeen fired newly developed weapons onto the "Restricted Areas" including Pooles Island, Bush River and Gunpowder River. Army observers would man the towers and report bearings from the towers to the explosion. Army personnel then used triangulation to identify the range. This technique was used for years during and after WWII to establish ordinance range.
I am sure that if you check with Aberdeen they will validate this explanation.
October 24, 2013
Hunter H. Harris:
I am very familiar with towers, two of them in particular. We have one on the northern edge of our family farm on the bluff at Howell Point and another just south of the farm almost to Meeks Point. They are, or at least were once used by the Aberdeen Proving Ground to measure the range of various big guns that they test there. I am not sure of the details but I believe maybe by comparing triangulation from each tower they could measure how far down range the pumpkin went. They had powerful radios in the towers and some really interesting scopes mounted on rotating azimuths. As a kid a managed to visit the men in the towers occasionally using some fresh homemade cookies as a security pass.
I can remember on more then one occasion looking across the Bay on a clear calm (but noisy) night from the farm's 40' bluff, first seeing then hearing an orange "pumpkin" flying down range. I was using my tripod mounted spotting scope and could follow the projectile as it ached over the marshes. If I had a phone number I would have probably called in my observations too!
Now that I look back on this, I wonder if those early experiences in these elevated platforms had anything to do with steering me to my eventual occupation as a pilot? Thanks for reminding me of these structures.
October 25, 2013
My wife and I have cruised the Chesapeake for 48 years, and are well acquainted with the towers in your article. There were a series of these towers built from Swan Pt. to Howell Pt. Some of them have letter designations on early charts. (Tower A, for example at Swan Pt.) They were built to be "lighted during ice flows". The quote is from an official 1978 "Guide For Cruising Maryland Waters" chart, tenth edition which I still have.
Another proof is from "A Cruising Guide to the Chesapeake" by William Stone and Fessenden Blanchard 1973 edition. On a chart on page 99 it shows the tower on Button Beach with "lighted during ice flow" noted next to it.
The answer, then, is the towers were built to be lighted during ice flows.
Capt. Bill Hurley:
The observation towers of which you write in the November issue were indeed fire watch twers--gunfire watch towers. They were used to triangulate the impact sites of ordnance being tested at Aberdeen Proving Ground. The artillery was located miles from the impact areas, thus they relied on azimuths from the observation towers to plot the impacts.
I spent a lot of time at my grandparents' home in Betterton, where the walls would rattle from the shellfire. My grandfather, William H. Fleckenschildt, was an owner of the Miss Milford, which carried firefighters from Betterton to Aberdeen and back while the testing took place. This continued into the fifties. Sometimes during sunset cruises we would be entertained by the flights of tracer rounds.
I spent many years boating and working in the upper Chesapeake before retiring and moving to Florida.
October 26, 2013
I have a set of nautical charts from 1971, the year I began sailing on the Chesapeake Bay. The tower in your photograph, and two others are clearly marked on the chart, along the Eastern Shore between Fairlee Creek and Rock Hall. Towers : "A" "B" and "C" are notated "lighted during ice flow".
October 28, 2013
All good mariners have a copy of chart#12274. There is an unnamed tower at Howell Pt. Next is a 100 ft tower at Meeks Pt (just north of Still Pond) that is lit at night during firing. The pictured tower is at Worton Pt. showing lights at 93’ &99’. The 93’ is lit during ice & the 99’ is lit when Aberdeen is firing at night. Amazing stuff on charts.
October 31, 2013
The observation towers along the eastern shoreline of the Chesapeake Bay were built either in the late 1930's or early 1940's as observation towers for submarines.
I had 3 cousins that worked on a construction crew one summer erecting them. I'm pretty sure it was funded by the federal government.
November 1, 2013
My understanding is they were spotter towers to do triangulation of test firing of splashes from test firings of projectiles from Aberdeen Proving Ground on the upper Western shore of the Chesapeake.
Not only that, charts showed that area as a prohibited area for boaters. To emphasize the point, official patrol boats were out in the area to chase boaters out of the range who didn't know what was going on
November 5, 2013
Army use, across from Aberdeen proving grounds. Used to take bearings on shells that were shot from big guns (howitzers).
My proof—my dad is a Chesapeake bay pilot and has also probably read every book known to man. Pretty much the smartest and coolest guy I know.
November 6, 2013
While I have no proof as to what I'm about to say is accurate, I can only repeat what was told to me as a young boy while fishing with my father in the upper bay. Dad, what are those white used for? His answer was, they are "range observation towers" used by the Army at Aberdeen Proving Grounds.
The Army would test fire different kinds of artillery from APG and the ordnance would land on Pooles Island or in the open waters of the upper bay from the mouth of the Susquehanna River to Pooles Island. The observers in the towers would radio the point of impact back to the range officers at the proving grounds.
I hope this will help.
November 10, 2013
Carl E. Canatella Jr.:
My grandfather told me when I was a little kid that they were used to watch ice flows and build up, along with the lighthouse tenders along the bay! Sometimes the ice would be up to 20 inches thick and the Coast Guard would have to send the ice eaters up the bay to keep the shipping channel open.
November 11, 2013
I'm slow getting to my magazines, and you probably know all you need about the towers, but here's my take on them.
Their location across from the Aberdeen Proving Ground gives one the major hint as to their function. I have no "proof" for what I have been told in the past, but it makes sense. The towers primary function in years past was to study and provide information as to trajectory et al when cannon ordnance was being fired from Aberdeen. I personally spent at least an hour one day about 15 years ago on my boat in the upper Bay (outside the buoy line to the west of which one dare not venture) watching ordnance explode a hundred feet or so above a cleared zone at the shore. There were two audible blasts with each event. One was the distant "cannon" origin far to the north; the other the terminal blast in front of me. The projectile speed was such that the two sounds were heard in reverse order of their creation, or virtually simultaneously, as I best recall.
I doubt that the towers were in use that day, since they probably are no longer in active mode, but I remain of the function view expressed above.