The forts at either end of the soaring Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge are among the oldest military installations in the country, guardians of New York Harbor for more than 150 years. Fort Hamilton, on the Brooklyn side, is still an active army base. On Staten Island, Fort Wadsworth is a massive polygonal fortification occupying 226 acres on a grassy hillside overlooking the Upper and Lower New York bays.
This location was first fortified by the British in 1779 and later taken over by the American military. The granite and brick buildings that survive today were built between the years of 1859 and 1876. Because of its strategic location, Fort Wadsworth remained important through the 19th and 20th centuries, updated as military technology evolved. During the Cold War, it served as the control center for New York City's Nike missile defense system.
Even though parts of the fort remained in continuous service, the old structures deteriorated until in 1995 they were rehabilitated to become part of the National Park Service’s Gateway National Recreation area. Today most of Fort Wadsworth, including a spiffy visitors center, is open to the public.
The oldest building here is the imposing Battery Weed (1847), right at the water’s edge. This looming stone structure has three tiers of arched galleries; these are the cannon ports. On top of the hill sits the barracks, Fort Tompkins, where about 600 soldiers were housed. It’s an impregnable-seeming place with two sets of walls; the granite outer walls are four feet thick and more than thirty feet high. There’s a space in between the two walls, where attackers could be trapped in a crossfire, and the rifle slits in each are “offset,” i.e., not placed directly opposite each other, to minimize the risk of shooting a comrade by accident.
Elsewhere on the site you’ll encounter evocative bits and pieces of the fort’s military past–an observation post, a row of officers’ houses, a burned-out railhead where mines were unloaded and a lighthouse (it’s open)–but also wildflowers, extraordinary views of New York City and the harbor, and a breeze off the sea. Bring a picnic.
Directions: By car, cross the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, lower level, take the Bay St. Exit, turn right and keep going. Or take the Staten Island Ferry and, at the St. George Terminal, the S51 bus.
This is a National Park Service area that preserves NY harbor fortifications from the early 1800s. The NPS site was established by an act of Congress in 1972. Its sweeping views of NY harbor & Narrows, and its historic buildings & fortifications are unique. (March 2007)