Harbor Defense Museum

Edification value  4/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 75 minutes, including time spent walking around in Fort Hamilton
Best thing I saw or learned

The Pattern 1844, 24-Pounder Flank Howitzer. In 1864, the Army deployed eight of these to defend Fort Hamilton. The base installed two in the caponier, ready to mow down any unfortunate infantry that tried to attack it.

Harbor Defense Museum, Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn

Getting to the Harbor Defense Museum requires a bit of doing and determination.  First because it sometimes keeps odd hours–definitely call before you go and make sure someone’s manning the fort (literally).

Second, because it is located in Brooklyn in the shadow of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.  By subway, it’s at the farthest end of the R train.  Its sister fort, Fort Wadsworth, situated across the Narrows in Staten Island, is run by the National Park Service.

And third, because uniquely among New York City museums, the Harbor Defense Museum stands within Fort Hamilton, New York City’s sole remaining active army base.

Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn

Fort Hamilton

I suspect that many New Yorkers don’t even realize New York has an active army base.  But it does.  Today’s Fort Hamilton, named after you-know-who, has a venerable heritage.  A defensive installation has guarded the sea approach to the Upper New York Bay here since 1789.  The original Fort Hamilton was completed in 1831.

Security is, to put it mildly, tight.  Two very polite guards at the main gate surveyed me skeptically, no doubt asking themselves why I’d want to brush up on the harbor’s historic defenses on a lovely autumn afternoon.  They directed me to the guard house, where Specialist Butler kindly called over to make sure the museum was still open.  Having confirmed that it was, he gave me a mini-background check. Once I passed muster, he turned me loose on the base with a paper pass and walking directions.

What’s a Caponier?

Harbor Defense Museum, Fort HamiltonThe Harbor Defense Museum occupies a bit of the old, historic Fort Hamilton called the caponier.  It guarded the land approaches to the sea-facing fortress.  If an enemy tried to attack across a wide dry moat, the soldiers manning the caponier could easily take them out.  With its stolid brick and stone and low arches, the caponier makes a very atmospheric place for a defense-related museum. In the model depicted below, the caponier is the boat-shaped green building inside the brown triangle.

Harbor Defense Museum, Fort Hamilton
Old Fort Hamilton

A good chunk of historic Fort Hamilton still remains, though only the Harbor Defense Museum is open to the public.  Part of it is the base social club.  It’s not the prettiest of the city’s forts, not being all fancy and angular like Fort Jay on Governor’s Island or Fort Wood on Liberty Island (the old fort is Lady Liberty’s star-shaped base).  But it’s impressive nonetheless.

Historic Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn
Historic Fort Hamilton, With Bridge

The Four-Ish Stages of U.S. Harbor Defenses

Harbor Defense Museum, Fort HamiltonThe Harbor Defense Museum tells the story of, well, what it sounds like.  It defines and describes the chronology of the military emplacements on the various islands in and approaches to New York City over the years, outlining the evolution from First Stage to Second Stage to Third Stage to (surprise) Endicott System defenses.

William Endicott revolutionized military defenses at the end of the 1800s by developing batteries of what are called “disappearing guns.”  Huge and elegantly balanced on counterweights, they could be raised for firing and then used the force of their own recoil to vanish behind a bulwark or defense, making it far exceedingly difficult for an attacker to take them out. His advances proved so significant that they named the “fourth stage” of military defenses after him.

Other Museum Highlights

The museum displays uniforms from throughout American military history (though the revolutionary war ones are reproductions).  And it deploys a variety of models and dioramas to show Fort Hamilton, the Narrows, and the various other defenses thereof.

Harbor Defense Museum, Fort Hamilton
Second System Defenses of the Narrows. Fort Lewis in Brooklyn, Fort Diamond (on the island), and Old Fort Richmond and Old Fort Tompkins on Staten Island

And guns.  The Harbor Defense Museum has quite a good number of guns. 

It also clearly depicts a century of military technology, via an evolutionary “family tree” of artillery. This runs from an 1829 32-pound muzzle-loaded cannonball that could fly a mile, to a 1919 16-inch, armor piercing, 2,340 pound artillery shell with a range of 28 miles.  That makes for a powerful visual explanation of the fast obsolescence of the forts guarding New York Harbor.

Harbor Defense Museum, Fort Hamilton
Artillery Evolution

When I visited, I met a nice older veteran named Tom, who seemed elated to have a visitor older than an elementary school kid to talk to.   Outside school groups, I don’t think many people make it here. Tom clearly loved the place, and made sure I got as much as I could out of my visit. If the Maritime Industry Museum had a Tom, it would be just about perfect.

We talked a bit about the Battle of Brooklyn, subject of the first part of the museum’s installation.  That fight, more correctly called the Battle of Long Island, raged across most of Brooklyn (see the Old Stone House, and Green-Wood Cemetery, among many other places). It started on July 4, 1776 when troops near today’s Fort Hamilton fired on the invading British fleet. 

Who Should Visit Fort Hamilton and the Harbor Defense Museum?

The Harbor Defense Museum is kind of like a Howitzer: not super fancy or high tech by today’s museum standards, but it’s solid and impressive and darn it, it’ll get the job done.  Anyone with even remotely interested in military, maritime, or New York City history must visit.

That said, I might rate the museum at Fort Wadsworth a bit better for drama, scenery, and enabling visitors to visualize the sweep of the harbor defenses.  The giant walk-through map there offers a stronger sense of how these forts worked together.  But the Harbor Defense Museum has a ton of depth in its brick vaults.

In addition, there’s definite value to visiting the City’s active army base.  On the grounds, Fort Hamilton displays an array of impressive armaments, well labeled and described. It also relates its own story. Fort Hamilton is 180 years old, making it the fourth oldest military post in the country.  And that tangibly ties the Harbor Defense Museum’s story to today’s more complicated world.

Planning note:  this museum and Staten Island’s Fort Wadsworth make a logical and very doable pairing. The S53 bus will take you over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge if you want to combine two historic forts in one day.  My review of Fort Totten has a list of all New York City’s historic forts.

Fort Hamilton
Bringing out the Big Guns. The 12-inch Mark V, Model 8, the largest coastal defense guns mounted at Fort Hamilton, peak of the Endicott Period.

For Reference:

Address 230 Sheridan Loop, Brooklyn
Website hamilton.army.mil
Cost  General Admission:  Free
Other Relevant Links
  • Description of the various American defensive “systems” at starforts.com