|Should you go?|
|Time spent||33 minutes (at the Visitor’s Center and historic Water Battery; longer in Fort Totten Park total)|
|Best thing I saw or learned||Ostensibly Spanish-American War era “Remember the Maine” graffiti in the tunnel linking the armament storage with the Water Battery. I’ll never forget.|
A Capsule History
In my Park Avenue Armory review, I wrote about the slight envy I feel for the era when arsenals and shoreline fortresses sufficed to protect the city against threats from abroad. Fort Totten is one of those shoreline fortresses.
As early as the 1820s, a government survey found that the land where Fort Totten stands could be useful for a coastal defense. Started in 1862, Fort Totten was intended to serve as a sister (brother?) fort to the 1833 Fort Schuyler, located just across the river on Throg’s Neck in the Bronx. Ironically, military technology got the best of the engineers, as improved ballistics rendered the style of fort obsolete by 1864.
I’m a little hazy on what happened next. I think they mounted guns, including in the partially finished defensive walls. But it seems they stopped working on the walls themselves. So I surmise that what you see today is less ruins than a place deliberately left unfinished. Both the visitor center and the internet don’t completely clarify.
Regardless of the fate of the battery along the water’s edge, the rest of Fort Totten played a significant role as a military base right through the 1970s. Then the city took it over and opened it (with fairly minimal interventions) as a public park. And things have slowly been happening there ever since.
Fort Totten Today
The former Fort Totten today plays several roles. The Fire Department uses several of the buildings as offices. The military still uses a couple of parts of it, too. And the Bayside Historical Society occupies a castle-like building that originally served as a mess hall and officer’s club for the Army Corps of Engineers.
As mentioned, the rest of the grounds serve as a large public park. Like Governor’s Island, the City has plans to redevelop Fort Totten Park, making it more parklike and revitalizing more of the historic buildings. As the park lies at the farthest end of Queens rather than immediately offshore from Manhattan, heaven knows when those plans will materialize.
But the Water Battery is the focus of greatest historical interest. In the early 2000s the city spent a great deal of money stabilizing the remains and making them safe for access. A small visitor’s center with friendly staff orients people and interprets the fort’s history, as well as offering some kid-oriented nature exhibits.
Unfortunately, the Water Battery doesn’t offer much to see. A long tunnel leads from the Visitor’s Center and historic torpedo storage facilities to the battery itself.
The ruins, once you reach them, are picturesque, but I wouldn’t call them a supreme Instagram opportunity.
Other parts of Fort Totten have some decent views, but you can’t climb high enough at the Water Battery to see the Sound, or look back toward Manhattan. It’s a bummer.
The Visitor’s Center tells a few good stories, but feels like a place in need of significant additional resources to really bring its subject to life.
Should You Go?
Those who don’t live in Queens or Nassau County have no compelling reason to visit Fort Totten. For most, it would be a long journey with little to see. Even those interested in the 19th century defenses of New York City have many other, better, options, including
- Castle Clinton in Lower Manhattan (not great, but much easier to get to)
- Fort Jay and Castle Williams on Governor’s Island
- Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island
- Fort Wood, better known today as the star-shaped base of the Statue of Liberty
- Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn (home to the Harbor Defense Museum)
- Fort Schuyler in the Bronx
Fort Totten’s abandoned Water Battery doesn’t compare with these other historic harbor defenses. Only an obsessively completist military history buff needs to go.
|Address||Cross Island Parkway between Totten Avenue and 15 Road, Queens|
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