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17) Searchlights at Fort Tilden

Updated: October 21, 2000

Typical 60
Typical 60" Searchlight
(image from www.skylighters.org)
(see our links page)

An important component of coastal artillery and anti-aircraft artillery of during World War I and II was the searchlight  battery. Fort Tilden was the home of several searchlight units over the years.

Searchlight Installations
A map from 1935 shows two 60-inch searchlights (believed to be Sperry 60" units), one at the East Battery, (later named Battery Fergusson), and another one at the West Battery, (later named Battery Kessler).  Each of these gun batteries was also equipped with an 25 KW gasoline engine-driven electrical generator to power the searchlight.

Another map from 1936 shows a searchlight designated SL #10 at the East Battery, (later named Battery Fergusson), and the controller for this SL located at the combined fire control tower for Battery East (B'), Battery West (B'), and the harbor minefield (M5), located in the SW corner of the Rockaway Naval Air Station.   A searchlight designated SL #9 at the West Battery, (later named Battery Kessler) had it's controller located at the 100' steel "Tilden Tower", co-located along with fire control tower for Battery Harris (B' BC), Battery Kingman of Fort Hancock (B6), and Battery Mills of Fort Hancock (B6) (both twin batteries of 12-inch guns built in 1922), located in the SW corner of Fort Tilden. At the tip of Breezy Point, a searchlight designated SL #8 had it's controller located at the fire control tower for Battery East (B2), Battery West (B2), and the harbor minefield (M4), also located at the tip of Breezy Point.

Temporary Mobile Searchlights
During February of 1940, four mobile searchlights and 8 AA guns were brought to Fort Tilden by troops from Fort Totten for night anti-aircraft practice.

How the Searchlights Work
The 60-inch searchlight had an aluminum enclosure, a parabolic glass mirror, and an automatic lamp mechanism which would strike the arc of the carbon lamp, rotate the carbon rod and maintain the proper gap to keep the beam focused properly.  Electric motors were used to position the azimuth and elevation of the light from a remote location. A 15KW generator was required to power this large searchlight.

Kevin Hanley sent an e-mail with some new information concerning these searchlights and he added "As a interesting sidebar, one of the searchlights was shipped to the Bausch & Lomb Optical plant in Rochester, NY, in August 1920 to have its mirror resilvered (I guess they just don't do glasses!)"
Sound Locator
Soldier at Fort Tilden manning a "Sound Locator" used to amplify the
sound of approaching aircraft and aid in directing the searchlights.

Binoculars
Soldier at Fort Tilden manning binoculars used to control the searchlights.


The development of radar during World War 2 made the searchlight obsolete since the radar was unaffected by rain, smoke, overcast and low cloud ceilings.  The Army anticipated that these early radar systems would be used to acquire targets at night, that could then be identified by the illumination of the searchlights.  The radar systems later incorporated IFF (Identification - Friend or Foe) systems that would facilitate faster and more positive identification of approaching aircraft and ships.

What's left today?
There are no known remains of the searchlight installations at Fort tilden or Rockaway Point. Some of these old Army searchlights are still around and are used  for advertising purposes. They are available for rent and are often seen at the grand openings of new businesses.

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