Brief History Of Fort Totten
Originally farmland, the United States Army purchased the first 110 acres of the Willets Point peninsula on May 16, 1857 for $200,000. The unexpectedly high cost of land needed to defend New York City’s eastern gateway from assault by the Confederate south caused a scandal in Congress, which generated an investigation. The remaining 26.35 acres were purchased on April 14, 1863 fro $57,000.
The only structures on Willets Point at the time of its purchase by the Army were a farmhouse that had also served as a tavern, a double house facing the water, which was only occupied during the summer and a stable standing near the salt marsh that separated the point from the mainland. Of these structures, only the 1829 farmhouse remains, awaiting restoration where it was moved adjacent to the present day Officers’ Club.
During 1857, Congress appropriated $155,0000 for the building of the fort at Willets Point, but construction did not actually begin until 1862. By that time, the Civil War was in its second year, and the point was already a busy military base. New York was the leading hub of the country’s transportation systems, particularly railroads and shipping. “Staging areas” were needed in the New York area where men could be temporarily assembled and trained while they were waiting for transportation to the front. The undeveloped Army property at Willets Point was ideal for this purpose.
Beginning with the Army Corps of Engineers, subsequent units passing through the fort in the early days of the Civil War were: the 2 nd Main Infantry, the 15 th New York Volunteer Engineers and the 6 th New York Infantry also known as the “United States Chasseurs”.
The names of two future leading figures in the Confederacy are linked with the beginnings of Fort Totten. It is believed that Robert E. Lee, as an officer in the Army Engineers, was responsible for some of the preliminary design work for the fort, and it was Jefferson Davis who, as Secretary of War, made the presentation before Congress requesting approval for its construction. Colonel William Petit Trowbridge of Astoria, Queens was placed in charge of construction of the fort to include a wharf and battlement foundations extending downward 12 feet below the normal water level of the Sound. Approximately 400 civilian construction workers were employed earning up to $3 a day.
If the fort as originally designed had been completed it would have been the most formidable structure in the New York area to include five tiers of guns and five sides to enclose a parade ground in the center. Walls were eight feet thick built of gray granite blocks quarried in the State of Maine and delivered on ships and barges. Ironwork included the armored “Totten shutters” for the gun ports with curved tracks set into the floors to train the guns. Only a two sided, two level battery was actually completed facing the Sound with the upper casemate left unroofed as seen today. Construction ceased in 1864 as the war drew to a close.
Wooden barracks were constructed to house up to 3000 troops. Near the end of the war they were used to house the Grant General Hospital, a facility that treated over 5000 sick and wounded Northern soldiers. Injured Confederate soldiers were confined to Hart Island across the Sound from Willets Point.
Colonel Henry Larcom Abbot, Chief of the Engineer Battalion which relocated from West Point was commander of Fort Totten after the Civil War. He was a great believer in military education. He found the Point to be well suited for the practical instruction of the troops in works of siege including land mining, bridge building and reconnaissance. His program received official recognition as the Engineering School of Application. Many wartime experiments were performed at the Point as a precursor of what was to become its primary purpose in the coming decades. A possible early submarine model was tested off the point. A laboratory set up on the Sound developed and tested electrically detonated mines controlled from a position on shore. Examples of these mines site atop the entrance pillars of Fort Totten today. Devices to measure the force of underwater explosions, strength of mooring cables, insulated wires to carry electrical charges underwater, and ways to test the system without detonation were all developed at the Fort Totten laboratory. Congress favored the use of submarine mines “torpedoes” as a relatively inexpensive form of harbor defense.
Another defensive weapon developed at Willets Point was the coast defense mortar; short cannons firing at a steep angle using pointed shells to descend almost vertically thereby penetrating the lightly armored deck of an approaching warship. In 1885, after a review of the country’s aging coastal defenses, many of the innovations developed at Willets Point were adopted under the “Endicott System”. In 1898, by order of President McKinley, the Fort at Willets Point was renamed Fort Totten, in honor of General Joseph Totten who had designed the casemate system in use at the fort.
In 1902, the Engineers were replaced with the Coast Artillery after which, the School of Application was moved to Washington DC. During the First World War, the Fort served as a major staging point for troops en route to the war zone. In 1922, the first anti-aircraft unit arrived at Fort Totten. During World War II the Fort was made the headquarters of the Antiaircraft Command of the Eastern Defense Command. In 1944 it was named headquarters of the North Atlantic region of the Air Transport Command, which handled troop movements, by air through LaGuardia Field.
The Fort had been the location of major Army hospitals since the Civil War, frequently home to medical research facilities. Stationed here was Major Walter Reed, who later played a primary role in conquering yellow fever. In 1947, the Armed Forces Medical Research Laboratory was established at the Fort to develop or improve medical equipment for the specific needs of the military.
After more than 100 years of service to our country, Congress approved the closing of Fort Totten in September 1995. The Army Reserve Command remains, although greatly reduced in size. The Coast Guard has relocated to Kings Point. The New York City Fire Department controls one third of the property as a training center and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation manages the final third of the property as a public waterfront park. The 1870 Officers’ Club is now the home of the Bayside Historical Society. ~ Geraldine Spinella
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