Tucked away on the north eastern edge of Queens is a rare remnant of New York City’s past that many don’t even know exist. Nearly 100 acres of land on the Willets Peninsula, originally inhabited by the Matinecock Native Americans and then owned by the Willets family, was used as a federal military base from the Civil War through the 1980s. In 1984, part of the land was turned over to New York City Parks and today, only a small portion of the land is still utilized by the federal government for the U.S. Army and Coast Guard.
Throughout the park there are remnants of the site’s former military life such as an abandoned Civil War-era fort and a decaying early 20th century battery. Only accessible with the guidance of Park Ranger, Untapped Cities Insiders and the public gained special access to the abandoned sites of the park during a special weekend event, Fortified. Discover the secrets we uncovered on our visit:
1. Construction of the Water Battery was Never Completed
Perhaps the most iconic and unique structure at Fort Totten is the Water Battery. In 1857 the federal government purchased the land at Fort Totten from the Willets family to add another fort to the system of waterfront defense structures surrounding New York harbor. The new fort would be a sister fort to Fort Schuyler across the East River in the Bronx.
Construction of Fort Totten, named after General Joseph Totten, began in in 1862. The battery, which means it held more than six guns, was made of bluestone and granite. Traditionally hard and sturdy stones were used that could bear the elements and protect from round cannon balls, but these materials proved inefficient in standing up to new military technology, mainly rifled, or pointed, artillery. Work on what should have been a four-story fort was abandoned in 1864 and to this day the fort stands in an unfinished state, a rare remnant of the Civil War in New York City.