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Fort Point, guardian of the Golden Gate


Immediately under the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge stands Fort Point, a US Army fortress that protected the approach to San Francisco Bay during the Civil War. Fort Point is one of the best-preserved coastal defense forts of its era, and one of the few major sites of Civil War significance on the West Coast.

The Army built Fort Point as part of the Third System of Coastal Fortifications, which were built between the end of the War of 1812 and the beginning of the Civil War. Most of the Third System forts were built on the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. When I lived in Alabama in grad school ten years ago, I visited several Third System forts; some of my pictures of those forts appear in this video.

While I enjoyed visiting those forts, I was disappointed to find that many of them had ugly concrete batteries from a later era, the Endicott System, built right inside them. Not even iconic Fort Sumter, where the Civil War began, was spared this fate! But Fort Point didn’t have any concrete gun batteries built inside it, as there were plenty of more convenient sites for the big guns elsewhere on the Golden Gate (and they probably wouldn’t have fit anyway). Although Fort Point is hardly in pristine condition (all of its original guns are missing, and the fort was modified in an abortive attempt to convert it into a second prison like Alcatraz), the fort is substantially complete, and it is easier to envision how it was used in the 1800s than it is while visiting many other Third System forts.

When researching this video, I found no shortage of secondary source material about Third System forts in general and Fort Point in particular. Some of this material was produced by the National Park Service for its own use in maintaining and interpreting the site. Another very useful source was (surprisingly) a Master’s thesis from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, which provided a wide-angle view of Third System forts that other secondary source material lacked.

Fort Point under Golden Gate Bridge

Fort Point is nestled under the southern end of the Golden Gate Bridge. It is easy to miss, but well worth taking the time to pay it a visit if you are in San Francisco.

Fort Point scarp wall

The southern or scarp wall of the fort, which was the only wall that did not face the ocean.

Fort Point gorge wall

The gorge wall in the interior of the fort, on the same side as the scarp wall. This is where the officers and enlisted men had their quarters.

Fort Point powder magazine

The reconstructed powder magazine of Fort Point, in the scarp side of the fort. (This display was under renovation when I shot this video, which is why it does not appear in the video. I took this picture in 2019.)

View of the parade ground inside Fort Point. The three arched tiers around the courtyard are the casemates, where the guns were mounted to protect against enemy ships.

View of the parade ground inside Fort Point. The three arched tiers around the courtyard are the casemates, where the guns were mounted to protect against enemy ships.

Fort Point vaults

The vaults in the casemates.

Fort Point roof

View from the top level of the fort.

Sources

  • Charlesworth, Timothy J. “Defending America’s Shore: A Historical Analysis of the Development of the U.S. Army’s Fortification System, 1812-1950.” Master’s thesis, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 2000. https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/pdfs/ADA384106.pdf.
  • Cultural Resources and Museum Management Division. Abbreviated Fort Point Historic Structure Report. San Francisco: Golden Gate National Recreation Area, 2006.
  • National Park Service. Fort Point. N.p.: Government Printing Office, 2017.
  • Smith, Mark A. Engineering Security: The Corps of Engineers and the Third System Defense Policy, 1815-1861. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2009.
  • Stephenson, John. “Deterrence in Stone: Seacoast Fortresses of the 19th Century.” Periodical: Journal of America’s Military Past 20, no. 2 (summer 1993): 10-18.

American Revolutionary War sites around Boston

In 2019, on a trip to Boston, I visited some American Revolutionary War sites in and around the city. While there, I shot some videos to record what I saw, and recently I edited the footage into three little documentaries about important episodes of the first year of the American Revolution.

Confrontation at North Bridge in Concord

North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts is one place where the American Revolution began. There were two small skirmishes that took place in the area west of Boston on April 19, 1775. The first of them was at dawn in Lexington, a little to the east of Concord. The other skirmish took place at North Bridge in Concord at about 11 AM.

The American forces (the Massachusetts Militia and the Minutemen) and the British faced off against each other on opposite sides of the bridge. The British tried to march over the bridge, and they fired on the Americans, and the Americans fired back. Two people were killed on both sides. Then the British started retreating back to Boston. With this skirmish, there was no doubt that the American Revolution had begun.

The Battle of Bunker Hill

An imposing obelisk on top of Breed’s Hill in Boston commemorates the Battle of Bunker Hill, which was fought there in the summer of 1775. Following the brief clashes at Concord and Lexington (mentioned above), Bunker Hill was the first major battle of the American Revolution.

You might be wondering: Why is the battle named Bunker Hill if it took place on Breed’s Hill? The Continentals had been under orders to fortify Bunker Hill in order to encircle the British who were occupying Boston, but instead they fortified Breed’s Hill. Nevertheless, the “Bunker Hill” name stuck, and the battle is named after a hill where it didn’t take place!

The Continentals built their fortifications on the top of the hill, where the monument and park are located now. On June 17, the British launched an assault on the American fortifications. Two waves of British troops marched up and were cut down. Finally the third wave was able to overrun the American defensive works, because the Continentals had run out of powder to fire their guns.

The Battle of Bunker Hill was technically a British victory, but the British only won after suffering very heavy losses. The Continentals, for their part, felt that they had won a moral victory, because they had fought well against the British and stood their ground when their positions were overrun.

Dorchester Heights and the Siege of Boston

After the Batttle of Bunker Hill, the British and the Americans were in a stalemate: the British occupied Boston, while the Americans surrounded them outside the city. To get the British to leave Boston, the Americans set up cannons on the top of Dorchester Heights, a hill to the south of the city.

The cannons were actually British cannons, which had been captured at Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain back in May 1775. Teams of oxen dragged 60 cannons from the fort through the wilderness to Boston. Once the British saw the cannons go up on Dorchester Heights in early March 1776, they decided it was time to get out of town. They sailed out of Boston harbor, and 1,000 loyalists went with them.

In the early 1900s, the anniversary of the British leaving Boston in 1776, March 17, was established as the holiday of Evacuation Day in Boston. Irish immigrants, who lived in large numbers in the area around Dorchester Heights, adopted the holiday and merged it with their own holiday, St. Patrick’s Day, which happens on the same day.

Quick thought: Why combined road-rail bridges are common in India but not the United States

When I was writing my dissertation and subsequently my book, one of the subjects I wrote about was the Saraighat Bridge, a combined road-rail bridge built over the Brahmaputra River in Northeast India between 1958 and 1962.

The Saraighat Bridge was one of several road-rail bridges I encountered in India. Building a multi-use bridge can be an efficient way to carry traffic across a river, because it only requires building one bridge for both modes of transportation. Yet while road-rail bridges are common in India, they are rare in the United States. Why is that?

First off, even though combined bridges are efficient, they aren’t always the best engineering solution, because rail and road bridges are not exactly interchangeable. Road bridges have to be broad to carry multiple lanes of traffic, while rail bridges can be narrow because they only need to carry one or two rail lines.

Another reason has to do with timing. In the United States, development of road networks lagged behind the railroads, and therefore rail bridges tended to be built at strategic locations decades before road bridges. In India in the twentieth century, especially in the early-independence period (when Saraighat Bridge was built), road and rail networks were developed concurrently.

And a third reason involves jurisdiction. In India, both the road and rail networks are nationalized, whereas in the United States only roads are public while railroads are private. The rare examples of road-rail bridges in the United States tend to carry public roads and public rails belonging to municipal public transit systems. An example of this is the Manhattan Bridge, which carries seven road lanes and five lines of the New York City Subway across the East River.

The Golden Gate Bridge of California: six lanes of traffic and not a rail line in sight.

The Golden Gate Bridge of California: six lanes of traffic and not a rail line in sight.

The Manhattan Bridge: a rare road-rail bridge in the United States.

The Manhattan Bridge: a rare road-rail bridge in the United States.

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