Fort Lafayette, New York City

jrweaver

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Dec 9, 2020
Fort Lafayette once stood at the Narrows between New York City's Inner and Outer Bay. The Narrows stands at the primary entrance to New York City from the Atlantic Ocean, with ships proceeding between the Sandy Hook of New Jersey and the south shore of Long Island. The only other route into the city was from the Long Island Sound, between Connecticut and Long Island, then down the East River through Hell Gate. This "back door" was very difficult to navigate with a sailing ship, and therefore not a primary route to the city.

Fort Lafayette has a long and storied history that begins in 1805 when American engineer Jonathan Williams surveyed the area. In 1808 he recommended that a battery be built on Hendrick's Reef, on the Brooklyn side of the Narrows. In 1812, on the brink of war with England, construction of the fort begins. One year later, while the nation was embroiled in war, construction was suspended, but resumed following the end of the war.

After Williams resignation from the Corps of Engineers, Joseph Swift took up duties on the defenses of New York City, assisted by a young fresh-out of the US Military Academy at West point, Joseph Totten. In 1818, General Swift reported that construction on the fort on Hendrick's Reef - referred to as Fort Diamond because of its shape - was half complete. By 1820, it was mostly finished, with Swift reporting that "A small portion only of the masonry, platforms, &c. remain unfinished. By that time, $275,000 had been expended with an estimate to completion of $25,000.

In 1823, the name was changed to Fort La'Fayette in honor of the French Marquis who was a hero of the American Revolution. In 1824 the spelling was Americanized to Fort Lafayette. Later that year, General Lafayette visited the fort bearing his name during what became known as his "Farewell Tour" of the United States.

In 1826, the Third System of American Coastal Defense was well underway, led by General Simon Bernard, another Frenchman who gave his services to our country, this time to bolster our seacoast defenses. General Bernard included Fort Lafayette as an "accessory" to the Third System - a previously conceived fort that would be incorporated in the defensive strategy of the nation. By 1840, it was described in the fortification reports as "a strong water-battery, regarded as well occupied." The proposed armament for the fort was 24 42-pounders, 24 32-pounders, 18 24-pounders, 6 8-inch heavy howitzers, 2 12-pounders, and 2 field pieces.

In 1861, the fort became home to both prisoners-of-war and political prisoners during the American Civil War. It served in that role throughout the war, and even after the war ended. Shortly after the war, Robert Cobb Kennedy attempted to burn several buildings in New York City, and was arrested and convicted of arson. He was sentenced to death by hanging, and that sentence was carried out at Fort Lafayette.

In 1868, a catastrophic fire broke out in the fort. People lined the Brooklyn and Staten Island shore, waiting for the inevitable detonation of the magazine and total destruction of the fort. It didn't happen! The design of the fort and magazine was such that it was protected from the flames and it did not explode. The defensive capability of the fort, however, was lost.

The technology of artillery changed dramatically in the 1880s with the invention of steel cannon, and one of the experimental guns - a dynamite gun - was mounted in the fort in 1893. In 1898, the fort became the principal ammunition depot in New York harbor, and maintained that role through the end of World War II, abandoned in 1946.

1960 brought about the end of Fort Lafayette. Surveys were underway for a bridge to connect Brooklyn to Staten Island - what was to become the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. Hendrick's reef, where the now-abandoned Fort Lafayette stood, was the ideal location for the Brooklyn tower of the bridge. Fort Lafayette was demolished, and the site used for the construction of the bridge tower.

While the Third System forts on each side of the Narrows - Forts Richmond and Tompkins on Staten Island and Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn - provided the primary defense of the Narrows after their construction, Fort Lafayette was a powerful deterrent to an enemy attempting to enter New York harbor. The deterrent worked, as these forts were never tested.

Ft Lafayette Drawing Smaller.jpg

9-3 Lafayette Eastman Print.jpg

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Hamilton Lafayette Colorized 2.jpg
 

jrweaver

Private
Joined
Dec 9, 2020
I find the story where the Fort's design protected the magazine from the flames very interesting. I bet the people on the shore were relieved. A friend of mine grew up not too far from the old Fort Lafayette location. Thanks for sharing.
Yes, as could be expected there was a combination of relief and disappointment that there were no dramatic "fireworks." The newspaper article from the event indicated the shores were lined with people watching for the explosion!
 

jrweaver

Private
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Dec 9, 2020
Yes, as could be expected there was a combination of relief and disappointment that there were no dramatic "fireworks." The newspaper article from the event indicated the shores were lined with people watching for the explosion!
It's so typical of people! There is danger of a horrible explosion but everyone had to watch, putting themselves in danger. It reminds me of people who stand outside watching a tornado approach. :smile:
 

A. Roy

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Sep 2, 2019
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Raleigh, North Carolina
1960 brought about the end of Fort Lafayette. Surveys were underway for a bridge to connect Brooklyn to Staten Island - what was to become the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. Hendrick's reef, where the now-abandoned Fort Lafayette stood, was the ideal location for the Brooklyn tower of the bridge. Fort Lafayette was demolished, and the site used for the construction of the bridge tower.

What a fascinating story! I'm guessing that any remnants of this fort would be underwater?

Roy B.
 

jrweaver

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Dec 9, 2020
What a fascinating story! I'm guessing that any remnants of this fort would be underwater?

Roy B.
Probably under the fill for the bridge tower, but possibly underwater. I have not looked up engineering drawings for the bridge towers to see how they are constructed and how big the footings are. I don't know how far down they demolished the fort, but I would imagine that it was only as far as necessary. It is conceivable that there are portions of the fort or its foundations around the perimeter of the footers for the tower. It would be fun to dive on that, but I haven't done any SCUBA for a lot of years. I sold all my equipment and my license has lapsed.
 

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