Four out of the five New York City boroughs are either an island (Manhattan and Staten Island) or part of an island (Brooklyn and Queens are two of the four counties that make up Long Island). The Bronx is the only borough that is part of the US mainland. As a result, the waterways surrounding the city are an intrinsic part of its identity and served an important economic function in its history. Yet the waterway system made the city vulnerable to attack so fortifications were built at strategic points along its harbors. This week’s challenge instructed me to spend time in a city park and while Flushing Meadows Corona Park may have been an obvious choice, instead I chose Fort Totten Park to learn more about the city’s military history.
Located on 60 acres in Bayside, a neighborhood in the northeastern-most section of Queens, Fort Totten was built in the mid-19th century and along with Fort Schuyler in the Bronx, served to protect the eastern entrance into New York harbor via the East River through Long Island Sound. It complemented the fortification of the harbor from the south at the mouth of the Narrows, with Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn and Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island. Today, a small section of it still houses the US Army Reserves and the US Coast Guard.
One of the highlights of my visit was a self guided tour of the water battery, which was built in 1862 as one of the US government’s responses to the attack on Fort Sumter and the subsequent outbreak of Civil War in 1861. After checking in at the refurbished Visitor’s Center, I accessed the battery at a nearby entrance that led me into a long transport tunnel lit by a single file of light bulbs along its ceiling. Walking through the tunnel felt like going through an old-fashioned wormhole in slow motion because when I emerged on the other side, I came upon an eerily abandoned unfinished fort from the past.
Walking amidst the large granite blocks and bluestone floors was reminiscent of my exploration of the buildings at Machu Picchu in Peru. Arched cannon rooms and walkways, numerous doors that led to hidden rooms and little crannies, stairwells that raised or lowered you to another level, and windows that peered out onto the water made it feel like a maze. The blocks, although universally sized here, reminded me of the large boulders smoothed out and tightly fitted together by the Incas to create the buildings of Machu Picchu. This place would be a photographer’s dream as light and shadow interplay well with the structure’s architecture. In all of my exploration, I did not encounter another visitor even though I saw a couple enter the tunnel just five minutes ahead of me.
Since the battery is adjacent to the water, it affords excellent views of Long Island Sound, Nassau County, and the Throgs Neck and Whitestone bridges that connect Queens and the Bronx.
Decades of neglect have left the battery and many of the buildings at Fort Totten in a state of decay. In some parts, nature has taken over.
To see incredible pictures on the state of a decaying building, check out this photo essay on Fort Totten’s Army Hospital. There is hope for some of these buildings to return to their resplendent beauty. Below is the former Commanding Officer’s house and today it is the Parks and Recreation Department’s northeast Queens headquarters.
The Gothic revival building below is known as “The Castle”. It was once the Officer’s Club is now home to the Bayside Historical Society.
I highly recommend a stop at “The Castle”. On the day of my visit, Margaret, a friendly employee offered me a quick and dirty “ten cent” tour. After showing me the lay of the land, I lingered to view the exhibits on display. Committed to remembering and explaining the history of the building and the neighboring area, permanent exhibitions inform visitors of the archeological digs of the area, the Native Americans who lived here, as well as the development of Bayside. Special exhibitions such as “The Women of Bayside” currently on display, highlight the contemporary events and people of the neighborhood. The society hosts lectures and events and the building is even available for rent by the public.
Fort Totten was designated a NYC Historic District in 1999 by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. In 2003, it was transferred to the City of New York with the exception of the 77th Army Reserve. In addition to the army reserve, the park is also home to the NYC Parks and Recreation, Fire, and Police Departments as well as the US Coast Guard. The park accommodates all ages and interests. Park Rangers offer historical tours of the battery, architectural tours of the buildings, and even take children on birdwatching tours! You can walk, run, and bike throughout the grounds and in the summer, a public pool is available for use.
To learn more about events at Fort Totten Park or any of NYC’s public parks, pick up the free quarterly magazine by the Urban Park Rangers, “Outdoors in NYC”. It is a useful guide that sorts information by borough, date/time, then activity. You can also access a copy online. I am struck by the incredible breadth of activities available to the public, the majority of which are free!
Fort Totten Park
Cross Island Parkway & Totten Avenue
Visitors Center: 718-352-1769
FREE / Hours: Dawn to Dusk
The Bayside Historical Society
Thu – Fri: 10 am – 2 pm
Sat: 12 – 4 pm
Sun: 11 am – 2 pm
$3 Suggested Donation
7 train to Main Street, Flushing,
followed by the Q13 or Q16 bus to the last stop
— OR —
LIRR Port Washington Line to Bayside,
followed by the Q13 bus to Fort Totten