Forts and Fortifications

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05/11/2003

Castle Clinton, Statue of Liberty, Throgs Neck Bridge, David's Island

Neighborhood: Across the River, Multiple

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I was a fat, strange kid for whome Forts were very important.

My parents used to drive from our upstate New York home to the Big Apple twice a year. For my parents those visits meant fine dining and Broadway shows .

For me however, those visits meant Forts.

Yes. Forts.

I was interested in anything “military,” but especially those constructions of masonry, earth, concrete and steel, topped with guns.

Preferably really big guns.

One of the awful facts of the 9/11 tragedy is the fact that the city and people of New York had no defense.

But from the Seventeenth century to well into the Twentieth century, New York City was one of the most heavily defended pieces of real estate in the United States. During this period dozens of forts and gun batteries and later, during the cold war, antiaircraft missile sites, were built from Manhattan Island all the way out to the end of Long Island, into Connecticut, New Jersey and up north into upstate New York, all for the defense of New York from foreign attack.

Experts on fortifications classify American forts and gun batteries by periods of design and military architecture. You have the Colonial, Revolutionary War, First System, Second System, Third System, Endicott etc. Changes in military architecture usually occurred in response to changes in military technology, especially increases in the power and accuracy of artillery. New York had forts from every one of these design periods.

New York started as a Dutch colonial fort on Manhattan Island. This was Fort Amsterdam, constructed in 1626, located at what is now the site of the Old Custom House at the foot of Broadway. The colony grew out into the area surrounding the fort and became New Amsterdam, and eventually New York after the colony came under British control. The fort underwent many name changes under the British, finally becoming Ft. George in 1714. From 1626 to the beginning of the American Revolution, this fort was the principal defense for Manhattan Island.

During the American Revolution, both the Americans and later the British, built many temporary forts and gun batteries all over Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. The New York area started to bristle with guns and continued to do so for years and years after the Revolutionary War.

Castle Clinton, located at the southern tip of Manhattan, may be the one fort that is best known to New Yorkers. I always found it to be fascinating whenever I got to go there as a child. Built between 1807-1811, and armed with twenty-eight cannon, the fort was in use as a key defense for the harbor and city through the War of 1812 up to 1823 when the government turned it over to the City. It saw many different nonmilitary uses after that, and is now operated by the National Park Service.

When I was a kid I always used to be fascinated by the Statue of Liberty, not only for the ideals it represented, but also because of the base of the statue. I knew something about the eleven pointed star shaped base that I found very few people, even native New Yorkers knew. It had been a fort! It was Ft. Wood and it was built in 1814, one of the few star shaped forts to be built in this country, and served in the defenses of New York until the end of the Civil War. In 1885-1886 it was modified to serve as the base for the Statue of Liberty.»

I always loved the bridges of New York. They were fascinating structures. I particularly loved the Throgs Neck Bridge, because of what lay beneath it at either end. Forts! Beautiful examples of forts of the Third System, the pinnacle of masonry fort design in this country, designed to protect the back door to New York. Fort Schuyler, now part of the campus of SUNY Maritime College, was built from 1833-1856, a massive, five sided, three tiered fort designed for a maximum of 312 guns. On the other side of the bridge was the never completed Ft. Totten. It was begun in 1863 as an irregular pentagon and only the first and part of the second tier were built. Its design was made obsolete by the power of the new rifled cannon introduced during the Civil War.

My parents and my brother were very active participants in the Boy Scouts of America when I was a kid. I was too much of a weird lone wolf to be a scout myself. But I usually got to tag along on a lot on my brother’s scouting adventures. In 1963 my brother was attending the International Scouting Jamboree in Marathon Greece. The staging area for the departure from New York City to Europe for the US participants was Fort Slocum. Fort Slocum was located on Davids Island, out in Long Island Sound off New Rochelle, New York and could only be reached by ferry from the mainland, a thrill in itself. It had been built at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries with modern reinforced concrete batteries of long range guns to guard the back door approaches to New York City. By the time I got there in 1963, these batteries were long obsolete and were gone. But this was the cold war era, and something even better was there. Nike Antiaircraft missiles! From 1955-1960!

Fort Slocum was the radar and control site for Nike Missile battery NY-15, one of approximately 19 sites built during the cold war around the New York City area to protect it from Soviet bombers. The launch facility with its eight launchers and 20 missiles was actually located on another nearby island, Hart Island, which had long served as a “potters field” for the city of New York. Even though the control site at Fort Slocum had been closed down for a few years, there was still a lot of interest to see there. New York and forts, as a kid I loved them both, and even today, over thirty years later I still do!

For more information on the forts that defended New York City, see the following:

Print Sources:

Berhow, Mark A. and Mark L Morgan., Rings of Supersonic Steel. San Pedro, CA., Fort MacArthur Museum Association, 1996.

Lewis, Emanuel R., Seacoast Fortifications of the United States: An Introductory History. _______,1970,1979. ISBN 0-89141-257-3

Roberts, Robert B., Encyclopedia of Historic Forts. New York, MacMillan Publishing Co., 1988. ISBN 0-02-926880-X

Weaver, John R., A Legacy in Brick and Stone:American Coastal Defense Forts of the Third System, 1816-1867. McLean, VA., Redoubt Press, 2001. ISBN 1-57510-069-X

Electronic Sources:

Coast Defense Study Group

www.csdg.org

New York Forts :
http://www.dmna.state.ny.us/forts/forts.html

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