To most New Yorkers, Fort Wadsworth, Staten Island, is the staging area for the New York City Marathon. If you watch the start of the race, you will see the runners massing all around the structure, ready to embark on their 26.3 mile odyssey to Central Park. Few realize that strategically located at the entrance of the harbor, beneath the Verrazano Bridge, Fort Wadsworth valiantly defended New York Harbor for almost 200 years. Until its closure in 1994, it was the oldest, continuously occupied, military installation in the US.
Now protected by the National Park Service as part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, Fort Wadsworth provides a fascinating insight into the history of the region as well as unparalleled views of New York City, Brooklyn, New Jersey, and the harbor.
Fort Wadsworth gives its name to the entire site. There are, in fact, two forts. Battery Weed, built between 1847 and 1862, sits on the shoreline; Fort Tompkins, built between 1859 and 1876, rises at the top of the bluff. The first was designed to defend against an attack from the sea; the second was intended to defend against an attack by land or by sea. Neither fortification is open to the public but it is possible to visit Fort Tompkins with a tour provided by the friendly, knowledgeable Park Ranges. Visits to Battery Weed are only possible in the summer.
We start the tour at the interactive exhibit in the Visitor’s Center where our Ranger guide explains the defense system of New York Harbor and the history of artillery at the fort. The simulated firing of a cannon makes us practically jump out of our skins because it is so loud.
The tour then marches up the hill to Fort Tompkins, while cars and trucks roar by on the Verrazano Bridge, almost over our heads. First stop is the dry moat which contains no water but a scarp and counterscarp that protected the Fort from attack by Land. Our Ranger points out the symbols carved into many of the stones, like a signature indicating that a specific mason crafted the stone.
An insignificant, small locked door leads to the catacombs of the Fort before opening to the parade ground and barracks that at one time housed 600 soldiers. Looking at the walls from outside, you don’t imagine this huge facility behind them. Look through the slit windows to the Narrows below and you can almost see yourself as a gunner, ready to protect New York City.
There are some poignant memories inside the fort. On one wall you can see where military plaques were once displayed. Today the plaques are in a museum, and the wall stands empty, with ghostly outlines recalling their positions. On another wall is a faded sign advising students of the US Army Chaplain Center and School that they should enter through Room 50 while officers are to enter through Room 61. Standing in the center you can almost hear the sound of the drill sergeants and the troops coming to attention.
As you leave Fort Tompkins stop at the Overlook where the panorama of New York City and the surrounding area spreads before you. It is a unique view that you will not find anywhere else.
We are also fortunate enough to visit Battery Weed, down the hill on the edge of New York Harbor. At one time the U-shaped fort included a wet water moat, which surrounded it and protected the fort. A drawbridge provided access. Battery Weed defended the harbor with its 116 casemates housing the cannons. Each of these Rodman cannons, which moved around on rails, required six men to fire them. The gunpowder was located in nearby magazines. Soldiers assigned to them had to work barefoot in total darkness to avoid creating a spark and setting off an explosion.
The history of Fort Wadsworth includes fascinating tidbits. For instance, did you know that:
- The Dutch built a blockhouse on this site in 1662?
- During the Revolutionary War, George Washington established a look-out (known as Flagstaff Fort) at the Narrows to warn of the arrival of British ships?
- The British captured the fort in 1776?
- A retreating British ship fired the final shot of the Revolutionary War on Fort Wadsworth on November 25, 1783?
- Mary Outerbridge, who had seen tennis being played in Bermuda, introduced the game to the US in 1874 with a court set up on the parade ground at Fort Tompkins?
- There is a 1903 lighthouse on top of Battery Weed, built to illuminate the Narrows, which became obsolete after the opening of the Verrazano Bridge?
- President Taft introduced the first Buffalo nickel at Fort Wadsworth in 1913 during a groundbreaking ceremony for the “National Memorial to the American Indian” (never actually built)?
- During World War II Fort Wadsworth housed some Italian prisoners of war?
- During the Cold War (and until 1974) Fort Wadsworth housed the control center for New York City’s Nike missile defense system?
- At various points in its life, Fort Wadsworth has been home to Army, the Navy, and the Coast Guard?
If you want to experience what it was like to live and work inside an Old Fort, then a visit to Fort Wadsworth will be well worth your while. It is one of the best-kept secrets of New York.
IF YOU GO
Fort Wadsworth is located at 201 New York Avenue, Staten Island, New York (Tel 718-354-4500. The park itself is open from dawn to dusk. The Visitor’s Center is open from 1000 to 1700 Wednesday to Saturday. For directions and up-to-date information consult the website.