Gateway National Recreation Area | FORT WADSWORTH WALKING TOUR

Fort Wadsworth Walking Tour (click to enlarge)

Fort Wadsworth Walking Tour (click to enlarge)

Staten Island Unit Home Page | Fort Wadsworth Home Page

The area within the Staten Island Unit of Gateway National Recreation Area now encompassed by Fort Wadsworth has been a military installation since 1779 when the British built a few earthen forts on this location during the American Revolution. Overlooking what is known as the Narrows—the narrow entranceway into the upper section of New York Bay—from this position the British could control all entry and exit onto the Hudson River and into Manhattan. When the war was over, the United States military took control of the forts.

At the start of the 1800s, the United States government decided to revamp its coastal forts, a period of construction known as the Second System of Coastal Defenses. One such innovation was the casemate: a fortified enclosure for artillery and crew. Prior to this, soldiers stood out in the open to fire cannon from the top wall of a fort. This subjected them to shells that burst in the air and rained down shrapnel. Casemates kept them protected from enemy fire by placing them inside rooms with thick walls that had an opening from which to fire a cannon. One such fort was Fort Tompkins, though this is not the Fort Tompkins that stands today at Fort Wadsworth.

As a result of how easily the British were able to blockade and even invade American cities during the War of 1812, including successfully burning Washington, D.C., to the ground, the United States government set out to upgrade coastal defenses for a third time, with construction taking place from 1817 and 1876. These Third System forts were multi-story masonry structures with dozens of casemates. Forty-two forts were built during this time, and many still survive and are part of the National Park System. The most famous of these is Fort Sumter (Fort Sumter National Monument). The current Fort Tompkins, which replaced the original, and Battery Weed (originally named Fort Richmond) are examples of Third System forts here at Fort Wadsworth. And by the way, it was at the end of the Civil War in 1865 that the name Fort Wadsworth was bestowed upon Fort Richmond to honor James Wadsworth, a general who died at the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864. It wasn’t until 1902 that the entire post was named Fort Wadsworth.

Masonry forts had no problem stopping a cannonball, for these didn’t travel with much velocity, nor were they very accurate, so the chance of blasting a hole in a fort wall by hitting the same spot over and over again was slim. However, rifled artillery developed during the Civil War had an inner barrel with a spiral grove cut into it. When fired, bullet-shaped shells were sent spinning like footballs, increasing not only their accuracy, but also their range and velocity. The effect these shells had on masonry forts was first demonstrated during the Union bombardment of Fort Pulaski on April 10-11, 1862 (Fort Pulaski National Monument). The walls of the “indestructible fort” were breached in less than thirty hours, forcing the Confederates to surrender…and effectively ending the days of the masonry fortresses.

After the Civil War, the United States military was tasked with replacing all 42 of its masonry forts, though the post-war economy made this impossible. It wasn’t until 1885 that President Grover Cleveland formed a military commission under Secretary of War William Endicott to come up with ideas for a new system of coastal defense upgrades. Known as the Endicott System of Coastal Defenses, the idea was to build massive, reinforced concrete and rebar gun batteries. While much smaller than traditional forts, when outfitted with guns that could damage the armor plated hulls of modern ships, the batteries were much more effective than a masonry fortress with a hundred cannon. Construction began in 1890, prompted by possible war with Spain, and lasted until 1910. Endicott batteries remained in use until after World War II, when air power made stationary forts obsolete for defensive purposes. There are a number of such batteries at Fort Wadsworth.

Visitors to the Staten Island Unit of Gateway National Recreation Area can see all of the surviving military structures, plus a few other areas of interest, on a walking tour of Fort Wadsworth. You can pick up a map at either the Fort Wadsworth Visitor Center or the Camp Office next to the Bay Street entrance into the fort. If neither of these are open, there is an information panel outside the Visitor Center that shows the route.

The National Park Service also offers guided walking tours of the fort. See the Calendar web page for a schedule (search for Fort Tour).

The tour officially starts at the Fort Wadsworth Visitor Center, but you can pick it up at any point. See the following web pages for photos and reviews of each stop on the tour. At the bottom of each page is a menu that will take you to the next or previous tour stop.

Fort Tompkins

Battery Duane

South Cliff Battery

Battery Weed

Torpedo Shed and Wharf

Battery Catlin

Mont Sec Avenue

Father Capodanno Memorial

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Last updated on December 15, 2021
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