|Should you go?
|Best thing I saw or learned
|The views from Fort Wadsworth are really spectacular.
There’s no more scenic vista of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
The Verrazano Narrows divides New York Bay into two bodies of water, the Upper Bay (what everyone usually thinks of as “New York Harbor”) and the Lower Bay, which connects to the Atlantic Ocean. As a narrow body of water, the Narrows has always been strategically vital in defending New York from naval attacks. So it’s not surprising that fortifications exist on both the Brooklyn and Staten Island shores of the narrows.
Its narrowness also makes it a natural place for a bridge, so it’s also not surprising that Robert Moses built one of those there, too.
This project has given me a reason to visit all of the city’s extant historic harbor defense installations. I find them fascinating, particularly how fast-changing military technology rendered them mostly obsolete just a few decades after their completion. Nowadays, of course, we defend our port cities from naval attacks via long range missiles, not cannons and mortars.
Historic Fort Wadsworth, part of the National Park Service’s Gateway National Recreation Area, stands in the shadow of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in Staten Island. The Dutch first built a blockhouse there in the 1630s, the British built a simple fortification during the Revolutionary War, and the Americans upgraded it in 1807. Little or nothing remains of any of these construction phases. The buildings extant today date to the mid-1800s, mainly built around the Civil War. Today’s fort-as-recreation-area comprises several structures, all in various degrees of picturesque decrepitude.
Any visit to Fort Wadsworth should start with the Visitor Center. You can pick up a map, which highlights the walking path and what you’ll see along the way. Although it doesn’t provide a lot of context, the National Park Service does its usual fine job with signboards throughout the grounds.
Visit the Visitor Center
The Visitor Center contains a museum that describes the various buildings and their purposes. It emphasizes that not a single one of the harbor defenses were ever actually used in battle, although their mere existence may well have deterred the British in 1812 and the Confederates during the Civil War. It also emphasizes how offensive military technology outstripped defensive military technology. Throughout the 19th century, impregnable battlements were very quickly rendered, well, pregnable.
The Visitor Center features a not-to-scale but very large representation of New York, with all the various forts depicted. Visitors can stride Godzilla-like through New York’s waterways, from Fort Schuyler and Fort Totten in the north, down the East River to Castle Clinton and the forts of Governors Island, and yet further south to Fort Wadsworth and Fort Hamilton at the Narrows. Along with some 20th century missile batteries.
It also points out some defenses that are no longer there, like the former fort on what’s now Ellis Island, and one that used to exist in the Narrows, which Robert Moses destroyed to replace with a pier of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
I’ve observed in other reviews that although New York’s coastal defenses were never tested in battle, they deterred attack on the city. I didn’t consider until I visited Fort Wadsworth that Washington D.C. had no defenses against invasion in the early 19th century — that’s one reason the British could march in and burn it down. Seems a dreadful oversight on the part of the young U.S.’s military leadership.
A Stroll Around Fort Wadsworth
Once you’ve oriented yourself at the Visitor Center, you can stroll around and see the sights, which are somewhat limited. The first places you arrive at are Fort Tompkins and Battery Duane, which boast a spectacular view on a bluff overlooking the narrows.
From there you can follow a roadway past picturesque and slightly overgrown Battery Catlin and the old Torpedo Building. The latter was used to store mines (which used to be called “torpedoes”). In the 1800s the military devised a system to block the Narrows by setting out a minefield. The Torpedo Building housed the mines in peacetime, ready for deployment to repel the Canadian Expeditionary Fleet or Barbary Pirates or other threats. In which case they could load the torpedoes (mines) on mini railcars and roll them out to waiting boats.
Across from the Torpedo Building stands Battery Weed, which from the outside looks to be in great shape, though clearly long abandoned, and unfortunately you can only go inside on guided tours.
From there the path winds back up the hill, passing under the bridge and ultimately circling back to the Visitor Center again.
If the signs are trustworthy, there are also goats on the grounds of Fort Wadsworth. I reckon they eat weeds and keep the place from getting completely overgrown. I didn’t actually see any, though. So your goat mileage may vary. If you DO see goats, don’t feed them.
Should You Visit Fort Wadsworth?
If you’re a military history buff, or curious about the city’s maritime history, Fort Wadsworth stands as one of the two must-visit installations. The other is the Harbor Defense Museum at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn. I did both in one day — the S53 bus provides a convenient –and pretty fun–ride across the Verrazano.
You could also combine Fort Wadsworth with a visit to the Alice Austen House. Both lie conveniently on the S51 bus route from the Staten Island Ferry.
I strongly recommend timing a Fort Wadsworth trip for when there’s a ranger-led tour scheduled. Seeing the exteriors of the historic buildings, as I did, is fine. But I expect it’s far more interesting to actually get to go inside.
If that’s not possible, it’s somewhat less worth the trip–but I still recommend it. The Visitor Center tells interesting and informative stories of the technology upgrades that kept these places relevant, but that also eventually rendered them obsolete. Just realize you won’t have access to the actual historic parts of Fort Wadsworth. And I remain unsure about the goats.
|210 New York Avenue, Staten Island
|General Admission: Free