July 23, 2023

Museum Review - Fort MacArthur

While in LA for the Naval Gazing Meetup (it was great, you should have come) I took the chance to visit the remnants of Fort MacArthur in San Pedro, not far from Iowa. I hadn't been interested in the field until a few years ago, and for various reasons hadn't been able to get there since.

The 14" disappearing battery at the main site1
Type: Coastal defense sites
Location: San Pedro, CA
Rating: A nice enough place to visit if you have the time
Price: Free


Fort MacArthur was established in 1914 to protect the growing city of Los Angeles as part of the Taft board's expanded program of fortifications. Initially, it was equipped with a quartet of the standard 14" disappearing guns and eight 12" mortars, as well as mines and smaller guns to cover the entrance to the Port. These were supplemented in the interwar years by a pair of 14" railroad guns. The fort was not particularly popular with the neighbors, who complained of broken windows, and the railroad guns were often moved up and down the coast to allow the crews to train. After the outbreak of war, there were serious concerns that the Japanese would attack, and the existing defenses were bolstered by the addition of a pair of 16" guns in casemate mounts a little ways up the coast, and another battery was planned down the coast in Orange County. These were armed with the 16"/50 Mk 2 guns designed for the WWI-era South Dakota class, and while the Orange County battery was cancelled in 1944, the battery near MacArthur was among the last ever completed by the United States.

Postwar, the USN ruled the seas, and the coastal defense system was rapidly mothballed, and the guns scrapped. But it would get a new lease on life as part of the Army's Nike surface-to-air missile system. 16 missile sites were built in the LA area, with its headquarters at Fort MacArthur, while one of the launch sites was installed below the defunct 16" batteries. By the 70s, the Nike system was seen as useless against the new threat of ballistic missiles, and the various sites were deactivated, with most of the facility being turned over to the City of Los Angeles in 1977.

The remains of the Nike site

Most of the facilities have been removed, but traces remain and can be visited. The most prominent is the Fort MacArthur Museum, about a 15-minute drive from Iowa. It's built around battery Osgood-Farley, which housed two of the original 14" disappearing guns. While the guns and their mountings are long gone, the staff has done an excellent job of recreating much of the rest of the equipment used to support them, and the installations themselves are pretty impressive. Signage is pretty much non-existent, and the procedure is apparently to just find a staff member and ask for a tour. They happily showed me through the restored spaces, including the plotting room, generator room (with one of the original diesel generators), communications room and decontamination spaces. They had a museum inside the old powder and ammo spaces, but it's currently closed as part of a dispute with the city about the future of the site.

Visiting is slightly weird. There's no parking nearby, and the procedure is to park on the side of the road near the gate on Leavenworth. They're only open three days a week, but admission is free and it's a cool thing to see. They also have a bookstore with a lot of stuff in it, although it's all donated and in no particular order. On the whole, I would recommend going. I've also heard glowing reviews of their annual "Great Los Angeles Air Raid" fundraiser, and might try to go one of these years, if they don't have to cancel it again because of the owls. It's worth a visit if you have time, although much like the Maritime Museum and Lane Victory, I wouldn't rush through Iowa to get here.

A distant view of one of the 16" casemates

Further down the coast, the 16" emplacements are also accessible. It's part of White Point Nature Reserve, where you can also find the remains of a Nike battery. There are only two real problems. First, there is effectively no signage, so you need to know what you're looking at yourself. Second, while the Nike stuff is pretty close to the parking lot, the 16" casemates are well up on the bluff, and it's a hike to get there. The trail leading up is very steep, and besides being a lot of work to go up, I was afraid of falling on the way back down. There's not much left, just the concrete itself, although it's a nice hike and the views are lovely. On the whole, I'd only recommend this if you're really into coastal defenses or if you want to combine a bit of history with a moderately strenuous hike.

1 Apologies for the lack of photos. I lost most of the ones I took to a phone failure.


  1. August 09, 2023FLWAB said...

    That 14" gun site looks exactly the ones I used to play in at Fort Worden in Washington state. I guess they standardized that kind of thing, but if you only showed me that top picture I would have assumed it was Fort Worden.

  2. August 10, 2023bean said...

    Yeah, all of these sites were heavily standardized. I have a book with a bunch of the plans.

  3. August 22, 2023russell1200 said...

    Being on the East Coast, they remind me of the batteries around Charleston. One of which sits within the original Fort Sumter. The Charleston ones I see referred to as "Endicott Period". Being built at the end of the 19th century, there was a lot of concern with the Germans at the time.

  4. August 22, 2023muddywaters said...

    @russell1200: see here for those (somewhat earlier) forts and here for German plans.

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