Several forts still stand in the New York City area. Although they are no longer used to protect the city, their power to inspire slack-jawed awe remains. Among the best preserved and most interesting are the six listed below. By Jessica Allen.
A key cog in the once-impregnable New York Harbor defense system, Fort Wadsworth sits in the shadow of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, part of the Gateway National Recreation Area. In the 1770s, the British built a fortification on the site of what’s now Fort Wadsworth. The structures that stand on 226 acres in Staten Island were built in the decades following the War of 1812 and were used for military activities into the 1990s. In fact, this fort has the longest continuous military history of any in the United States.
Erected to protect the city during the War of 1812, Castle Clinton in Battery Park never actually fired a shot. In the 1820s, it became a concert venue, even hosting opera diva Jenny Lind. From 1855 to 1890, Castle Clinton served as an immigration depot, processing two of every three immigrants who arrived in the United States in this period. These days the castle houses the ticketing office for the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. (Note: the castle suffered damage during Hurricane Sandy, and has been closed for renovations.)
Fort Tryon Park is one of the loveliest, remotest spots in all of Manhattan. Although the Continental Army manned several posts collectively known as Fort Washington in the area high above the Hudson River, the British captured this fort in 1776 and renamed it for Sir William Tryon, the last British governor of colonial New York. Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. transformed it into a park in 1935, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art-run Cloisters, dedicated to medieval treasures, opened in a reconstructed monastery here in 1938.
Just a few hundred yards from Manhattan, Governors Island serves as a seasonal destination for art lovers, mini-golf players, picnickers, and even polo enthusiasts. From 1794 to 1966, the island served as home, command headquarters, training grounds, and educational facilities for the US Army, and you can still see not only their forts and barracks but also their earthworks and armaments. The Coast Guard ran things from the 1960s to the 1990s, and it became a national park in 2003. Rent a bike for the afternoon to fully explore the island.
The youngest fort on this list, Fort Tilden in Queens opened in 1917 to defend New York Harbor from air and land attacks. It was decommissioned in 1974 and turned over to the National Park Service. Today you can spend the day wandering through the maritime forest, see an exhibit by or take a class with Rockaway Artist Alliance, or attend a performance by the Rockaway Theatre Company. You can also scramble atop Battery Harris East, a one-time gun site, for sweeping views of Jamaica Bay.
Now part of the State University of New York Maritime College, Fort Schuyler was constructed in the aftermath of the War of 1812, to protect New York’s poorly defended coastline. During the Civil War, this facility at Throgs Neck, where the East River meets Long Island Sound, served as a prison, hospital, and training facility. Nowadays, the fort is considered one of the best examples of the so-called French style, a distinctive pentagonal shape. To learn more about the fort, the coast, and the harbor, visit the campus Maritime Museum.