I’m often asked for tips by folks who want to find and explore abandoned history, and the discussion always circles around to trespassing. “Do you ever ignore ‘No Trespassing’ signs?” they ask. My answer? No. There’s no reason to, especially when there’s so much to see on public property nearby major cities.
For instance, few of the two million visitors who show up Sandy Hook, New Jersey every year for a little R&R realize that the seven-mile-long spit of land pointing northward to New York City holds two hundred years of military history, including, of all things, a former nuclear arsenal intended to turn a squadron of enemy aircraft into sand.
L: Nike Hercules missile on launcher; R: Fort Hancock’s abandoned launching area
Until 1974, Sandy Hook was home to Fort Hancock, which, for the first half of the Cold War, included a couple Nike missile batteries. The forsaken traces of this of this hidden history, not to mention all the military infrastructure from two previous centuries, are a short drive from the nation’s most populous city.
I’ve written about Nike sites before. A ring of batteries around major American cities stood ready to annihilate Soviet bombers before they could drop their payloads. There may be one within a short drive of where you live.
Thanks to the committed volunteers of the Fort Hancock Nike Association and the National Park Service, which administers the decommissioned base as part of Gateway National Recreation Area, part of the old Nike battery is available for tours. Preserving even a small piece of the old Nike battery requires a Herculean effort. Nature is merciless and money is tight.
L: Old hardware at the Nike Integrated Fire Control area; R: Early 20th century coastal defense fortifications
What’s more, Fort Hancock contains the remnants of coastal defense from many eras, forcing caretakers to set up a sort of preservation triage, saving some structures that best tell the story, while letting others fend for themselves against the elements. I delve into the effort to save a small part of the Fort Hancock Nike batteries in my forthcoming book.
Nevertheless, here is a preview of some of the history at Fort Hancock, both preserved and disappearing. Places like these are accessible and you don’t have to break the law to see them. There are volunteers, Nike vets, no less, who would love to show you around. Contact the Fort Hancock Nike Association or the Sandy Hook Unit of Gateway National Recreation Area to ask about guided tours.
Abandoned buildings at Fort Hancock
The restored Integrated Fire Control area at Fort Hancock’s Nike missile batteries
L: A Nike Ajax stuck in a tube; R: A phone booth once used by many a G.I.
Nature’s reclamation of the old Nike sites.
Sunbathers enjoying the Jersey Shore, most oblivious to the beach’s history