There are many military installations in the United States rich with their own histories, traditions
and tales of glory. These forts represent the sacrifices made during the past 200 years for the cause of
freedom and democracy. The Alamo, Ticonderoga and many others stand in commemoration of bloody
battles. However, much of America’s freedom was not won by those few passionate battles. Instead,
meticulous planning, perseverance and dedication carried out by countless men and women has shaped
the course of our history.
In Bayside, Queens, there is one special fort dedicated to the memory of the great men who
insured our nation’s defense. Although it is too easily forgotten and dismissed by many, Fort Totten is
rich with lore and accomplishments that have become part of Long Island’s heritage.
Jacob Fein is retired from the Army now, however he has been involved with Fort Totten since he
enlisted in the service in 1936. As early as 1952, Fein was “detailed by commanding officers, along with
others, to conduct historical tours and give talks in the local schools.”
At that time, civic groups and others were given tours of this unique fort and relished hearing
about the role that it played in America’s history. Now, the fort is inactive and Fein is concerned that
this valuable landmark will deteriorate further and become a victim of time, politics and the lack of
concern by citizens.
He continues to give tours and has been collecting photos and memorabilia sent by people from all
across the nation. Fein has become almost a one man crusade to save the remains of the historical fort
and to establish a museum on the site.
Willets Point juts out into Long Island Sound on Little Neck Bay. It is an extremely placid setting,
one with a view of sailboats on the bay, the Throgs Neck Bridge and a ‘sister’ fort… Fort Schuyler across
the Narrows. Historians feel that the land was originally used as a resort area by the Matinecock tribe.
However, after Dutch colonists and English settlers built New York City into a major port and commerce
was established on the Hudson River, Willets Point became prominent as a strategic point from which to
protect New York Harbor.
The area was fortified as early as the French and Indian and the Revolutionary Wars. In 1794,
seacoast fortifications were begun along the eastern coast when the French Revolution brought fear to
the new nation of involvement with European wars. “After the War of 1812, our country was greatly
concerned about invasion from other countries,” comments Fein. “And 12 forts, including this one were
established around New York City. Each one had its mission.” The mission of any fortification in this
location would be the protection of New York Harbor. As early as 1856, a brigadier general and Chief
Engineer of the Army, Joseph Totten, provided an argument to the Flushing Journal about the
importance of strengthening the area from which war ships could enter New York Harbor from Long
Island Sound. His point of view as obviously considered by the War Department.
In 1857, appropriations were approved by Congress for the purchase of the Willets Point property
in order to establish “The Fort On Willets Point.” At that time, a Congressional Committee was called
upon to investigate the purchase and expenditure of an exorbitant $200,000 for 100 acres of land. The
government felt that this sum was too high a price for the land. In any case, the land was developed as a
fort and the adjoining swamp land was filled in to increase the size of the area. Preliminary plans for the
fort were drawn by an ingenious young member of the Corp of Engineers, Captain Robert E. Lee.
However, his plans were never put into effect.
In 1861, with the Battle of Fort Sumter, the fort became Camp Morgan, named after Edwin
Morgan, Governor of New York. The bustle of wartime recruiting and planning was felt within the fort
and the Bayside vicinity. New England sent its regiment of the 2nd Maine Infantry to the fort. The
regiment was followed by the 15th New York Volunteer Engineers who fostered a bad reputation in the
area due to their general rowdiness.
Later, the 65th New York Infantry, the famed United States Chassures, arrived at the fort followed
by the New York Rifles. The Corp of Engineers had only been formed in 1846 during the Mexican War,
but now, they were called upon to provide innovations in weaponry, warfare and defense.
Massive construction began on the fort in 1863. The entire peninsula enjoyed a vantage point of
about 80 feet above the water mark. In addition, the Army dug out a foundation that was 12 feet deep.
Under the leadership of Col. William Trowbridge, a local engineer from Astoria, 400 workers were hired
to construct the massive and innovative fort. The old fort itself has more than 15,000 granite blocks
weighing anywhere from 200 pounds to eight tons. These blocks were brought from the quarries of
Maine by ships and put into place and polished. Within the seawall, the walls are solid stone, with a
thickness of eight feet with casements protected by two foot thick wrought-iron shutters. A polished
stone floor and spiral staircase completes the heavy shore fortification.
The fort was so extensive to build that a private railroad was used on the building site. There is a 1,000
foot tunnel for use by cannons and vehicles at the fort and this was considered to be unique for its time.
For as long as the fort has existed, there have been rumors of a secret tunnel built beneath the
Narrows to connect Fort Totten and Fort Schyuler. “For as long as Fort Totten exists, you will always
hear the story of the rumors… people thinking they had found the entrance. There have been cases
where, at low tide, they thought they found it,” states Fein. “But no one has ever gone across. People
have claimed that they have found it, but the War Department has denied anything that concerns a
tunnel. But I like to believe myself that perhaps at one time they started a tunnel.”
Secret tunnel or not, the fort was completed in 1870. One edifice served as a barracks for thousands of
troops. It was later transformed into Grant General Hospital and served the wounded during the Civil
War, receiving about 5,000 Union soldiers annually while the war raged. A gifted young physician, Major
Walter Reed, served at this hospital and later found a cure for Yellow Fever.
Construction continued and experiments were carried out by specialists in the new area of submarine
warfare. After the Civil War, the fort was made the home of the Army Corps of Engineers on the
Eastern coast. Even the officer’s club that was built at the fort was patterned after the engineer’s
The engineers built their own museum in 1880 at the fort and it existed for 20 years until it was
moved to Washington DC. “We’ve had many officers and enlisted men who came here to learn
engineering tactics after the Civil War,” states Fein. “What they learned, they spread all over the
United States ... in the area of bridge building, the building of cities, anything within the engineering
area. So, this (fort) really does have an important history.”
Although no shot was ever fired from the fort against an enemy, it is an intricate contributor to
military history. “The mines were invented here,” claims Fein, “and torpedoes were invented here.”
During the Spanish American War, General Totten died from wounds received in action during the siege
of Vera Cruz. The fort was named after this heroic engineer and military figure on July 23, 1898. “We
had a skirmish line of mines from here to Fort Schuyler during the Spanish American War,” notes Fein.
“When they couldn’t locate the Spanish fleet, they thought they were on their way to New York. You’ll
see those lines at the entrance to the fort. Then, there was lot of testing and experimenting with
torpedoes and electric searchlights.”
Improvement and additions were made until the World Wars once again called Fort Totten to
perform a critical role. In 1941, the east coast received its first radar installation at the Fort Totten site.
In 1945, Totten became the headquarters for the entire Atlantic Division of the Air Transport Command.
Other important missions were to follow such as Headquarters for the Air Defense Command and the
site of the Army Medical Equipment Research and Development Laboratory. The fort received taps from
active duty in 1967, one year after it was officially designated as a Federal Historical site.
After it was discontinued as an active Army Base, several agencies were provided with acreage such as
the Coast Guard, Job Corps training program, even the Weather Bureau, along with many civilian
organizations. It has become the home of the 77th Army Reserve Command and boasts the largest
reserve center in the nation. However, local politics and businesses, government agencies and civic
groups are all vying for a piece of this prime land.
Many eye the mighty granite blocks and would destroy this treasured landmark, flinging apart bits
and pieces of the Island’s heritage. “The character of the fort is really amazing,” states Fein. “It is one
thing that we should not destroy ... actually, the history of Tort Totten is also history of America and
that’s the way I personally feel.”
It is easy to visualize the way the fort must have stood during those crucial years of growth and
service. Now, shade trees and gentle water contrast the cold granite blocks and their impressive stance
against the forgotten enemies of New York Harbor.
“Actually, Totten is a memory of lots of events. The plans and the buildings are beautiful. They are
echoes of the past and we should do all we can to preserve them,” urges Fein. Fein hopes and dreams of
preserving as much of the land as possible as a park or recreation site that would pay tribute to the
great defense effort that was once alive within Fort Totten.
Whatever Fort Totten was in the past, today it is a historical structure. Before her meaning
completely disintegrates into a constant rush for the future, perhaps it is wise to remember that history
and its creations can never be replaced.
First published in the Long Island Heritage