- Historic California
Posts, Camps, Stations and Airfields
- Fort at Fort Point
- (Fort Point, Fort
- by Colonel Herbert
M. Hart, USMC (retired)
- Executive Director,
Council on America's Military Past
The situation truly was
well in hand when John
Fremont, a few Marines,
and some settlers made an amphibious assault on the Golden Gate
back in 1846. It was midnight on July 1, when the small party
crossed from Sausalito in a launch, scaled the 100-foot height,
and swarmed into the adobe fort of Castillo de San Joaquin.
Ten cannon quickly were
spiked and the attacking party waded back to their boat and returned
to Sausalito. There was only one thing that detracted from the
glorious success: Fort San Joaquin was completely undefended,
the garrison having been withdrawn more than a quarter of a century
"In the absence of
a garrison with no powder," is the caustic comment in Bancroft's
History of California, "it is not surprising that,
as far as can be known, not one of the ten cannon offered the
The site of San Joaquin,
at the southern side of the Golden Gate, was to become Fort Point
ten years later. It was the logical location for a key defense
of the San Francisco harbor, and as early as 1793 construction
had begun on a fortress there.
At that time, the point
of land was about 100 feet above the waterline. The post was of
adobe but with brick facing and had dimensions that ranged between
100 by 120 feet to 140 by 140 feet, depending upon the authority
consulted-and the time period concerned. As with the Presidio,
the fortress apparently underwent considerable modification, especially
when each rainy season took its toll of the adobe foundations.
A dozen cannon went into
the finished Castillio, the heaviest aimed toward the ocean and
the Golden Gate. The.wall along this side was 10 feet thick. The
shore side was only five feet thick and mounted only light guns.
With the place completed,
the authorities seemed content to devote their efforts to keeping
it from falling apart. By 1836, however, all regular troops had
been withdrawn, and San Joaquin had nothing to prevent it from
It was in this decrepit
condition when Fremont and company seized it 30 years later, although
in his Memoirs, Fremont tells of spiking ''large handsome
pieces" there. Seven years after that, the U.S. Congress
decided that the Golden Gate needed fortresses in more than just
name, and appropriated $500,000 to build them at this site and
on Alcatraz Island.
At the time, no one bothered
with a name for either place. Although in 1865 General Irvin McDowell
suggested that Fort Point be named Fort Redo the matter was let
The first problem was to chop off 90 feet of the bluff so that
cannon in the fort could bear on to attacking ships. The level
was brought down to 10 feet above the waterline and then a fortress
similar to Fort Sumter, S.C., was erected. While the work was
underway, General Wool had 10 24-pounders mounted on the high
ground to its rear for use until the post was complete.
Thirty-six foot thick walls,
a shot tower, places for upwards of 200 guns, guardhouse cells,
living quarters, all were included in what was to become the most
elaborate fortification on the Pacific coast. The original appropriation
soon was used up, and by 1854 a request was sent to Washington
for another $750,000 for the next fiscal year. In all, upwards
of three million dollars were spent on Fort.'Point, $400,000 of
it on a 2,000-foot long granite sea wall. Quarters, barracks,
storehouses, and workshops were built along this sea wall to the
east of the fort.
A visitor in 1855 noted
that the granite block foundations were being laid in a trench
nine feet long and 10 to 20 feet wide. A cistern was being dug
within the enclosure. By 1856, the first floor had been completed
and four 32-pounders were added for defense while the work was
in progress. The second tier of gun arches was completed in 1857
when 240 men were in the work force. A year later, 200 men were
pushing work on the arches for the fourth tier. Three spiral staircases
went up at this time to a lighthouse on top.
In 1861, the War Department
sent word to suspend work on the fort and the labor force was
discharged, leaving unfinished a small portion of the defenses
and the living quarters. With orders on February
15 to occupy "the Fort at Fort Point" General Albert
S. Johnston decided that this included "of necessity the
authority to do all such acts as are necessary to render the occupation
secure and the place inhabitable." He ordered the work to
resume.Two companies of the 3rd Artillery garrisoned Fort Point
with 160 men. The California State Militia volunteered to man
the place, but this was politely rejected. The Army said it had
enough men to do it. Three years later McDowell asked the War
Department for authority to form a regiment of civilian artillerymen
to man Fort Point, but was told to use the troops that he had,
even if be had to put infantrymen to work on the cannon. An 1864
estimate said that 700 artillerymen would be necessary to defend
the fortress, but the garrison never approached that size.
General George Wright inspected the place
on November 9, 1861. "The armament of the fort, although
incomplete, was found in handsome condition and ready for any
emergency," he reported. A month later, he added that he
added, "found everything in the highest order" and by
the industry and activity of the commanding officer "the
fort has been put in the best possible condition to guard the
passage of the Golden Gate."
In 1862, Wright reported that there were
140 guns mounted at Point, but that this was only half the number
needed. lie explained that if war from a seagoing opponent ever
should come, 'this is the Only point on the Pacific Coast where
effective resistance could be made."
During the Civil War, the garrison at Fort
Point was alerted whenever a ship was sighted at the Golden Gate.
A revenue cutter challenged visitors under the frowning gun ports
of the structure, and cannon were rolled out and ready to react
at any hostile act.
Nothing came from the seaward side of Fort
Point, and any military commitments placed on the garrison came
from disorders in San Francisco. They were on alert at every election,
the entire garrison armed and ready. The Volunteers who were California
citizens were taken unarmed by boat to their voting precincts
to east their ballots.
- From the Golden Gate Bridge this is how
Fort Point looks. Positions along top tier barbette remain for
Civil War armament that included nine 10-inch and 17 8-inch Columbiads
and 11 32-pounder seacoast artillery. The remainder of ordnance
in fort included six 24- and 28 42-pounders and 56 8-inch Columbiads.
"The fortification from which Fort Point receives its name,
is a brick structure modeled after Fort Sumter," 1884 description
reads, "and, before the recent improvements in naval warfare,
was considered an impregnable work; but before the arms now in
use, it is asserted, it would not stand one hour." Compared
to Sumter, Point had only a third the number of men, a quarter
more number of guns but of smaller sizes. Sumter had 15-inch
Columbiads that weighed 49,100 pounds and fired a 320-pound shell
5,730 yards. In 1863, two of these were to be sent to Point.
Fort at Fort Point After Civil War
- "Fort Point is a permanent work,
built of brick and granite," said report of 1879. "Has
four tiers and two flank defense towers for guns on the water
side. 126 guns can be mounted in it. Soldiers quarters and hospital
on land side, officers quarters on outside:' The 20-some buildings
outside of fort were built between 1854 and 1862. commanding
officer's quarters dated from 1858, had two stories with single
story office attached. Both officers' .quarters were double-story
duplexes, six rooms per set, built in 1862. Barracks also dated
from 1862, were described as "mere shells . . . one story,
rough boards and batting sides, shingle roof and foundation.
Windows and doors destroyed; used as lumber and storerooms. '
Post was not garrisoned for ten years after 1868 but underwent
repairs and refurnishing upon reoccupation in September, 1878,
when two companies of 4th Artillery moved in. Cluster of unidentified
buildings south of low row of "permanent" fortifications
probably were engineer and construction workers' quarters. The
fortifications were earthen barbettes begun in 1870. None of
these buildings remains. (Redrawn from McDowell Report, 1879.)
|| Coal Storage
|| Commanding Officers
| LAUN Q
|| Laundress Quarters
| OLD B
|| Old Barracks
|| Ordnance Shop
| ORD SGT Q
|| Ordnance Sergeant's
|| Officer Quarters
- With peace, the defense of the Golden
Gate was forgotten. More batteries were built along the foot
contour line on the hill behind Fort Point. Gradually the defense
line worked itself back until Fort Point was left alone out on
a point. In 1882 post was officially renamed Fort Winfield Scott,a
term applied to the entire system of coastal defenses west of
- By 1906, Fort Point, for it never really
felt comfortable with the Scott name,was declared obsolete and
its garrison moved to the Presidio Its batteries were abandoned
in 1914. Fort Infield Scott remained, its modern coastal defense
for the World Wars obliterating the positions on the bluff. And
in 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge crossed above Fort Point, dwarfing
what once had been the most magnificent edifice and most powerful
defender on San Francisco Bay.
- GOLDEN GATE dwarfs Fort Point, Bridge
was completed in 1937 at cost of 35 and a half million dollars.
Its tallest towers are 746 feet above water and center span 1,125
feet long, is 220 above water. Cables are a yard in diameter.
Below its southern end is Fort Point 150 feet wide 250 feet long
on its longest side and 45 feet high. Bastions extend out 40
foot on northeast and northwest sides to provide flanking fire.
A battery to protect rear of fort was placed on hill behind it.
Even when Castillio do San Joaquin occupied this site, danger
from land was noted "To render the fort tenable in in case
of approach to it by land, it is indispensable that a work be
thrown up on the eminence which commands it, about four or five
hundred yards immediately in its rear," 1846 inspection
report commented, "otherwise it is at the mercy of an enemy
on the land side."
of the Fort
- CIVIL WAR appearance of
interior of Fort Point is shown by this view of southern side
which included quarters and office casements. On first floor
were shops for wheelwright blacksmith carpenter and other utility
services. Three prison cells were next to sally port, which is
flanked by cannons in center of first floor; cells were on left
of this entrance. One cell was lighted from opening on outside
of fort, another had light from opening to inner court, but middle
cell was unlighted "solitary confinement" room Second
floor had officers' quarters and barracks were on third floor.
Eleven 32-pounder sea coast guns, commanding the hill behind
fort and road approaches from wharf, can be seen on this part
of fourth tier. Apparently temporary wooden shelters protected
them from elements.
Casements along sea side of Fort Point look
like this. All guns were removed in 1897 and offered to permanent
posts for ornamental purposes. Those remaining were bought in
1901 by Herman White for scrapping. Denying that the many-thousand
pound weapons were "White elephants," he was able to
break them into manageable pieces of scrap In this section of
third tier, The Civil War garrison had 8-inch Columbiads mounted
along this casemate where traces of traversing tracks still can
be seen on floor. This was a cast-metal, smooth-bore, bronze
cannon with range upwards of one mile.
- To find out more about
the Fort Point, visit the National Park Service's Fort Point National
Historic Site Website
- Need directions to the Fort Point? CLICK
- Recommended reading on the history of
the harbor defenses of San Francisco:
- Chin, Brian
at the Golden Gate: the Harbor Defenses of San Francisco in WW
Pictorial Histories Publishing Co., Missoula, MT., 1994
- Clauss, Francis J.
Angel Island, Jewell of
San Francisco Bay
Angel Island Association, Tiburon, CA 1991
- Delgado, James D.
Island of Change
Golden Gate National Park Association, San Francisco, CA 1991
- Martini, John A.
Point, Sentry at the Golden Gate
Golden Gate National Park Association, San Francisco, CA 1991
- Martini, John A.
Alcatraz, Guardian of the Golden Gate
Pacific Monograph, Kailua, HI 1990
- Martini, John A. and Haller, Stephan A.
- What We Have We Will Defend:
An Interim History and Preservation Plan for Nike Site SF-88L,
Fort Barry, CA
National Park Service, Golden Gate National Recreation Area,
San Francisco, CA 1998
- Thompson, Erwin N.
- Historic Resource Study,
Seacoast Fortifications, San Francisco Harbor, Golden Gate National
Recreation Area, California
Denver Service Center NPS, Denver CO 1979
- This page was
reprinted with permission from Old Forts of the Far West,
published in 1965