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Abandoned, Military

Wandering Fort Wadsworth

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Battery Weed looms over a desolate shoreline in Fort Wadsworth, Staten Island.

At the easternmost tip of Staten Island, a natural promontory thrusts over the seething Narrows of the New York Harbor, formed by glaciers thousands of years ago. The site’s geography most recently made it a prime location for the Verrazano Bridge, but its history as a popular scenic overlook and strategic defense post dates back to the birth of the nation. The British had occupied the area during the Revolutionary War, and its first permanent structures were built by the state of New York in the early 1800s. These fortifications safeguarded the New York Harbor during the War of 1812, but were abandoned shortly thereafter. So began the familiar cycle of ruin and rebirth that characterizes the history of Fort Wadsworth.

By the mid-19th century, these early structures had fallen into an attractive state of decay. In a time when all of Staten Island held a romantic appeal as an escape from the burgeoning industrialism of New York City, Fort Wadsworth in particular was known for its dramatic terrain, sweeping views of the harbor, and evocative old buildings. Herman Melville described the scene in 1839:

“…on the right hand side of the Narrows as you go out, the land is quite high; and on top of a fine cliff is a great castle or fort, all in ruins, and with trees growing round it… It was a beautiful place, as I remembered it, and very wonderful and romantic, too…On the side away from the water was a green grove of trees, very thick and shady and through this grove, in a sort of twilight you came to an arch in the wall of the fort…and all at once you came out into an open space in the middle of the castle. And there you would see cows grazing…and sheep clambering among the mossy ruins…Yes, the fort was a beautiful, quiet, and charming spot. I should like to build a little cottage in the middle of it, and live there all my life.”

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Under the Verazzano Bridge.

The “castle” was demolished to make way for new fortifications constructed as part of the Third System of American coastal defense, known as Battery Weed and Fort Thompkins today. The batteries remain the fort’s most impressive and unifying structures, but they too were deemed obsolete as early as the 1870s due to advances in weaponry, and were used for little more than storage by the 1890s. At the turn of the 20th century, Fort Wadsworth entered yet another phase of military construction under the Endicott Board, when the United States made a nationwide effort to rethink and rebuild its antiquated coastal defenses. Like its predecessors, the Endicott batteries never saw combat, and were essentially abandoned after World War I.

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Inside a powder room of Battery Catlin.

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A squatter’s unmade bed in the back of the structure.

Though Fort Wadsworth was occupied by the military in various capacities until 1995, its defense structures went unused for most of the 20th century. By the 1980s, woods and invasive vines had covered areas that were once open fields, and Battery Weed was living up to its name, overtaken by mature trees and overgrowth. Since Fort Wadsworth was incorporated into the Gateway National Recreation Area in 1995, its major Third System forts (Battery Weed and Fort Thompkins) have been well maintained and properly secured, and upland housing and support buildings have been occupied by the Coast Guard, Army Reserve, and Park Police. But the headlands still retain an air of abandonment, due in large part to the condition of the Endicott Batteries, which remain off-limits to the public.

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Over five of these batteries are scattered across the grounds, all in various states of disrepair.

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The Endicott Batteries are filled with narrow, windowless rooms, tomblike hollows, and underground shafts.

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Their military blandness stands out in contrast to the grace and grandeur of the fort’s earlier structures deemed worthy of preservation.

Layers of history peel back like an onion at Fort Wadsworth, as evidenced by a new discovery just unearthed by Hurricane Sandy. The storm caused a section of a cliff to collapse, downing several large trees and exposing the entrance to a previously unknown battery. Its vaulted granite construction places it firmly in the Third System, which means it was built around the time of the Civil War. Very little is known about the structure, except that it’s the only one of its kind at Fort Wadsworth. My best guess traces its partial construction to the 1870s, when Congress left many casemated fortifications unfinished by refusing to grant additional funding.

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A previously unknown granite battery, possibly dating back to the Civil War, was unearthed by Hurricane Sandy.

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Large mounds of soil block the interior of the battery from view.

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They’d been sifted through ventilation shafts in the ceiling over decades of burial.

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Over the mound, the vaulted structure leads deeper into the ground.

To my disappointment, the next room came to a dead end, and to my horror, it was crawling with hundreds of cave crickets. These blind half spider/half cricket monstrosities pass their time in the darkest, dampest, most inhospitable environments, and are known for devouring their own legs when they’re hungry. They give perspective to the level of isolation of this chamber, which likely stood underground for over a century.

What other mysteries still lie buried in the lunging cliffs of Fort Wadsworth, or the depths of this forgotten battery? The dirt may well conceal deeper rooms and darker discoveries…

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Cave crickets in the deepest room of the forgotten battery.

Special thanks to Johnnie for the tip! Get in touch if you know of a historic, abandoned, or mysterious location in the five boroughs that’s worth exploring.

For more of New York’s neglected military sites, check out Fort Totten:

Fort Totten

Fort Totten

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Discussion

8 thoughts on “Wandering Fort Wadsworth

  1. Thanks for another fascinating edition! Your posts are always welcome!

    Posted by Pete Falina | 3-3-14., 4:52 pm
  2. Wonderful!

    >

    Posted by M TD | 3-3-14., 6:27 pm
  3. Always worth the wait for your next post. I grew up on Staten Island and Ft. Wadsworth was always off-limits. I totally enjoyed these photos and appreciate you taking the time and effort to get them for us. Great job, many thanks.

    Posted by Frank | 3-3-14., 7:42 pm
  4. We always look forward to your posts, too. Love the peek into the past….

    Posted by Tina H | 3-3-14., 9:45 pm
  5. I too, relish the arrival of your posts. Your description of the cave crickets was amusing, as I have these same “monstrosities” living in the basement of my 1894 home in NJ. After 15 years of trying to eradicate the buggers, we finally gave up. Luckily, we rarely find them alive. For some odd reason, 3 or 4 chose to expire together, on our tile floor every few months, as though it were a vampire suicide by sunlight. Very strange. Thanks for another very interesting post.

    Posted by K. Q. Duane | 3-8-14., 11:19 pm
  6. Fantastic! I actually live right across the water and have always wanted to get in there and explore. Too bad I don’t have my own Johnnie :-/ As with many of your posts, I’m glad I can experience a bit of it through you.

    Posted by theescapeboat | 3-10-14., 4:47 pm
  7. This is an amazing post. :)

    Thank you so much for sharing this. :)

    Posted by zeenyc75 | 3-15-14., 10:56 am
  8. i have been there many times.the park service had a great exibit then for some reason shut all down.no more tours,just a great view

    Posted by david hulkower | 7-27-14., 12:19 am

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