Battleless fort to see action as park Survivor: A 300-year-old Staten Island fort that was never attacked and whose defenses were once called "useless" is opening as a national park in May.

Sun Journal

March 18, 1997|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- It was the view from the overlook, 150 feet above the entrance to New York Harbor, that led the British government to fortify this hill. Look south and you could see 30 miles into the Atlantic. Look east and you could see to the rolling hills of Brooklyn. Look north and see the southern tip of Manhattan.

Signal Hill they called it, because from its top you could pass a message in three directions with a single flare.

That view will be a key attraction when Fort Wadsworth, the 226-acre military installation occupying the hill and the banks below, opens to the public in May. The 300-year-old fort, which never fired a shot in anger, will become the newest national park.

It will also be one of the most historic. Army historians say that until the Navy's departure in 1994, Fort Wadsworth was the oldest continuously occupied military post in the country. And since Wadsworth's oldest structures were closed to the public for decades, the National Park Service is expecting strong interest from visitors interested in history.

Wadsworth's several parts may seem familiar to anyone who knows Fort McHenry in Baltimore. Along the water, a granite fort known as Battery Weed stands at the Narrows, the picturesque entrance to New York Harbor. Up the hill, protecting Weed's rear, is Fort Tompkins, a star-shaped fortification resembling Fort McHenry.

Battery Weed and Fort Tompkins look as if they were the scene of great, long-ago battles. But in that sense they deceive. The record of Fort Wadsworth illustrates an important, albeit less glorious side of American military history -- more Sergeant Bilko than the invasion of Normandy.

The fort was named for James S. Wadsworth, a New Yorker known for failing as a gubernatorial candidate and for suffering mortal wounds at the Battle of the Wilderness in the Civil War. And history best remembers Fort Wadsworth for a shot that didn't connect at the end of the Revolutionary War.

It was Nov. 25, 1783. On that day, a mob of Staten Islanders gathered nearby, their shouting making clear their dislike of the British, who were evacuating fortifications in and around New York. An angry British gun crew took offense. It fired at the crowd. The round fell short.

"The question we always get is, 'What famous battles were fought here?' " says Roger Scott, a National Park Service public affairs specialist. "And the best answer we can give is, 'Well, the fort did its job so well that no one bothered to attack.' "

Local historians say the Dutch built a small blockhouse for defense on the site of Fort Wadsworth in 1636. The structure was destroyed by Indians in 1655, but rebuilt in 1663.

In 1664, the British took it over and fortified it to protect New York, a key supply base during the French and Indian War and then during the American Revolution. The site languished for several years, until the War of 1812 prompted the construction of Fort Tompkins, the star-shaped structure on the hill.

It took 30 years -- until the late 1840s -- for the U.S. government TC to negotiate the purchase of the land from the state of New York. The purchase and the subsequent building of Battery Weed was eventually financed as part of a pre-Civil War buildup in coastal defense. But disputes within the military meant that construction took another 17 years.

Battery Weed was completed in 1864, two years after rifled artillery made stone fortifications obsolete. Gen. Philip Sheridan, who visited the fort after completion, concluded that it was "useless."

The Army used Fort Tompkins as a commissary and as a school for chaplains in the late 19th century. It built smaller batteries around Fort Wadsworth and maintained a base at the site until 1987, when the Navy took over for a period of seven years.

But the military left the Civil War-era parts of the site in less than peak condition. In recent years the main courtyard of Fort Tompkins, where 19th-century soldiers had gathered to play lawn tennis, was used as a junkyard.

"There were whole cars back there that we had to clean out," says Scott. The fort meanwhile became best known as the place where runners gather at the beginning of the New York Marathon. This convocation turned the grounds into what the Navy brass came to call "the world's largest outdoor urinal."

The Park Service, which will share the site with the Coast Guard and the Defense Logistics Agency, took control of the historic structures in September 1995 and will dedicate a new visitor center May 3. But park officials say they are at least $1.75 million short of the $5 million a year they need to run and maintain the fort.

So projects such as securing Battery Weed's battered sea wall have been delayed indefinitely. And park officials are discovering that this wind-swept real estate requires extra maintenance: The gusts are so fierce that flags raised at Fort Tompkins are torn to shreds within a month.

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