Travels

The Fort that Never Was

Nestled on the northern tip of Willets Point, Fort Totten sits directly across the East River from Fort Schuyler (now SUNY Maritime). It was conceived as part of a series of strategic forts blocking maritime access to the island of Manhattan, aimed at preventing a recurrence of the events of the War of 1812 when Manhattan was taken by the enemy.

(Source: NYC Parks & Recreation)

Designed in the shape of a pentagon with five story high walls, construction on the fort began in 1862.

Yet by the end of the 1860s it was clear that the granite masonry structure would be unable to withstand new developments in military artillery which saw round shot cannons being replaced by more powerful and precise football cannons. Indeed, the Army performed a test fire with the result being you can still see the cannon balls lodged in the fort walls today.

Only two walls and two stories had been built when construction was halted.

During the 1870s, two earthwork batteries were built on higher ground behind the incomplete fort. In 1871, a tunnel was built to connect the upper 27-gun battery with the fort. Today, this is the only path through which you can gain access to the fort, with the entrance located on the left-most side of the photo below.

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During the Endicott era, new gun batteries with “disappearing carriages” were built between 1987-1904 at Fort Totten as part of America’s updated coastal defense strategy. While the majority of its guns were decommissioned following WWI in 1917-1918, Fort Totten remained an active US Army installation until 1974 , serving as the headquarter for the anti-aircraft portion of the Eastern Defense Command during WWII and as regional headquarter for Project Nike during the Cold War.

Today, the architecturally stunning former officer houses and barracks at Fort Totten continue to be home to various divisions of governmental entities including the Army Reserve, the Coast Guard, the NYPD, and the FDNY.

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