What’s in a Name? Fort Tilden

Image Caption: Aerial view of Fort Tilden and Rockaway Naval Air Station, 1919

There are nearly two centuries of military fortification history on the Rockaway Peninsula. And with it comes the story of changing placenames.

Fort Decatur was built in 1814 by the U.S. Army as the first defensive system on the peninsula. The blockhouse—named after Captain Stephen Decatur, who commanded naval ships during the American Revolution—was designed to protect New York Harbor from a potential British invasion during the War of 1812. It was situated at the then western end of the Rockaway Peninsula (modern day Beach 137th Street) and dismantled within a year after the conflict. However, Rockaway’s strategic defensive location led to future fortifications.

Between the 1880s and 1910s, the shifting sands of Rockaway’s westernmost point were filled in, and the peninsula extended westward. An immense bulkheading process ensured the peninsula’s present form.

In February 1917, as U.S. involvement in WWI loomed certain, the Army purchased 306 acres on Rockaway from New York City. The new landfill provided the foundation for Camp Rockaway, which was incorporated as part of the Harbor Defenses of Southern New York. Included in the new fortifications and adjoined to the Army’s Camp Rockaway was the Rockaway Naval Air Station.

After the U.S. entered WWI, Camp Rockaway was renamed Fort Tilden on July 24, 1917, in honor of Samuel Jones Tilden (1814–1886). Tilden served as Governor of New York from 1875–1876 and ran as the Democratic candidate for President of the United States against Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876. Despite winning the popular vote, Tilden conceded to Hayes in the now-infamous Hayes-Tilden Compromise, which effectively ended Reconstruction in the South.

In 1919, Rockaway Naval Air Station was the departure point of the world’s first transatlantic flight. However, in 1930, the air station was decommissioned, and operations were relocated to Floyd Bennett Field. Today, Beach 169th Street is renamed U.S. Navy Seaplane Division One Way to commemorate that pivotal moment that connected Rockaway to the Golden Age of Aviation.

Fort Tilden was increasingly armed and fortified until 1948, when its weaponry was deemed obsolete. But the site continued to play a role in national defense.

In 1950, Fort Tilden was incorporated into the Army’s Air Defense Artillery Branch and renamed Site NY-43. As the Cold War tensions grew, in 1955, Nike–Ajax missiles were installed, and in 1958, they were converted to the nuclear-capable Nike-Hercules missile. Fort Tilden, as Site NY-43, remained armed with nuclear weapons until the Nike–Hercules system was deactivated in 1972. After which, Fort Tilden was decommissioned and incorporated into Gateway National Recreation Area.

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