Fortified New York

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.

Throgs Neck Bridge in Foreground & Whitestone Bridge in Background

View of Long Island Sound & Nassau County

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.

Batteries Built in 1885-1903 that Housed Disappearing Guns

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.

Replica of the Archaeological Site

Bayside Real Estate Brochure in the 1930s. A 2-story, 3 bed house on a 40x100 plot cost $5,890-$6,290.

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.

Union Soldier Uniform

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
Bayside, Queens
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


15 responses to “Fortified New York

  1. this is fantastic! I had no idea that this even exist and so much history, too. I would love to walk around and I really liked your comparision of Machu Picchu. I haven’t been, but after you mentioned it I could see the similarities.

    • Thanks Jade!! I really do have to thank you for coming up with the idea for this challenge. I have grown up in Queens and lived here for most of my life but this challenge is making me visit places that I’ve never been! I had no idea that Fort Totten even existed until just a few weeks ago when I was researching info on week four’s challenge.

      I was surprised at the connection between Fort Totten and Machu Picchu too! Obviously, Machu Picchu is much grander in terms of scale than Fort Totten but those feelings of curiosity in a place of the past were the same. And unlike Machu Picchu, there were no crowds at Fort Totten. I felt I had the whole entire place to myself!

  2. Wow, a great insight into a hidden side of NYC history. We lived in the city for a year and even though we explored so much we completely missed this part of the past. Will have to go again and see for ourselves. Great photos! Thanks for sharing.

    • Hi Andy, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment! Isn’t it amazing how you live in a place and there are still so many things left to discover?! I grew up in NYC/Queens and I had never heard of Fort Totten until a few weeks ago! Hope you do have a chance to see Fort Totten and other forts in NYC on your next visit here. Where are you living now?

      • Hi Jojo, I’m a Brit and back in the UK living just outside London now, but still look back fondly on our year in Manhattan. We used to walk everywhere – from 86th Street down to the Brooklyn Bridge, a cheesecake in Junior’s and then a walk back home! And the parks in the Bronx where my boss told me I should be walking 🙂 Well, you’ve given us something else to add to our list of things to see when we return. London is the same, with many secret histories that most people walk over/under/around without ever noticing.

      • I love the UK! I dated an Englishman and spent time in Nottingham where he went to uni and then worked, and later in Maidstone, Kent where he grew up. The countryside has a special place in my heart. One of my fondest memories is walking through the golden wheatfields of Kent using the public paths and running my hands over the soft tips of wheat. It is always on my list of places to return to. Hopefully, I will get to go again soon!

        You are right about a place’s “many secret histories that most people walk over/under/around without ever noticing”. I hope my blog will uncover some of those histories. They deserve to be told!

  3. I love going there and sit by the water. It’s great place to just relax and visit. Once I went pretty late and going inside the park was a bit scary bcuz of those old torn houses. Some of them seems like it’s so old and no one has touch it in years. Love that it’s close by bay terrance I can grab food later haha. Really interesting share and glad you wrote about it and share with the blogger community.

  4. You know the Bay Terrace mall in Bayside. There’s a Branes & Nobles with starbuck inside. I either get something sweet or I go to Bosnton Market and grab some sides. If it’s dinner time There’s Applebee. Nothing as cool as the other area where they have nice Spanish food. hahah U know what I mean. I love how you always blog about Queens, because a lot people only know about the city but had no clue Queens is also an hidden gem too.

    • Thanks for the info! I have never really explored Bayside before. I am definitely going to focus my next 8 blog posts on Queens thanks to Vagabond3’s 12-week “travel within your own city” challenge. I hope that my posts will encourage more people to visit Queens, whether they are from out of town or from the area!

  5. I really like the castle, looks so neat, like new. We have many medieval castles in Slovenia, but they’re in decay… no money, which is a pity. And thanks for sharing that photo of you, for a moment I thought the dog is real, haha 😛 You’re looking good, even if you walk a not so real dog 😉

    • Oh really? I didn’t now that about Slovenian castles. That is sad indeed. Maybe they can do what Sicily is doing? There are so many churches and monasteries that are no longer being used and the government is helping to retro-fit them so that they can become schools, museums, etc so that they can be preserved but repurposed.

      Haha on the dog! The park had many of these dog cut outs scattered all throughout the lawn so I thought it would be fun to take a picture…and see which of my readers would notice. 😉 You have sharp eyes! LOL

  6. Reminds me of a similar fort in Boston harbor. I think it was on georges island. Way neat.

  7. Pingback: Travel your own City: Weeks 1-6 in Review

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