Historic California Posts, Camps, Stations and Airfields
The Fort at Fort Point
(including East and West Batteries)
 
 
Fort Point
by Colonel Herbert M. Hart, USMC (Retired)

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thing that detracted from the glorious success: Fort San Joaquin was completely undefended, the garrison having been withdrawn more than a quarter of a century before.

"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 slightest resistance."

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 By 1836, however, all regular troops had been withdrawn, and San Joaquin had nothing to prevent it from washing away.

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 die.

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.
 
 
The 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.)
 
 
 BK  Bakery
 BLK  Blacksmith
 COAL  Coal Storage
 COQ  Commanding Officers Quarters
 LAUN  Laundry
 LAUN Q  Laundress Quarters
 OLD B  Old Barracks
 ORD  Ordnance Shop
 ORD SGT Q  Ordnance Sergeant's Quarters
 QM  Quartermaster
 OQ  Officer Quarters
 ST  Stable
 
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 the Presidio.
 
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.
 
 
The Golden Gare Brisge 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."
 
 
Interior 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.
 
This article was reprinted with permission from Old Forts of the Far West, published in 1965
 
 
Fort Point
by Justin M. Ruhge
In September 1870, the Pacific Army Engineer Board recommended the construction of barbette gun and mortar batteries along the crest of the bluff south of Fort Point and on the bluff to the east of the Fort, forming a horseshoe shaped battery. The Golden Gate itself would be defended by a battery on the bluff immediately to the rear of the Fort, firing toward Gravelly Beach west of Lime Point. This forward battery, because it would fire directly over the barbette of the Fort, would require the disarmament of the Fort's barbette tier. There were to be six guns in this battery. The design was divided into what became referred to in future reports as West Battery on the bluffs facing the ocean and East Battery on the bluffs facing the bay. The six guns behind the Fort were included in the West Battery designation. The proposed batteries were given a list of priorities. The six-gun battery was to be constructed first; the first eight guns and a mortar battery of the West Battery, second; the sixteen guns and four mortars of the East Battery, third; and the remaining six guns of the West Battery, fourth. Thirty-six 15-inch Rodmans and 27 mortars were proposed.
This was the third line of defenses to be built above and behind Fort Point. The first was the 10-gun battery of 42-pounders built to protect the Fort in 1854 when work was just beginning. The second set of batteries was called the West and East Casemated batteries to be located behind the 10-gun battery. The West Battery faced toward the ocean and the East Battery faced inland toward the bay. This work was started in 1867 and required the removal of the western portion of the 10-gun battery. The Western Battery was completed but the project was terminated before the eastern portion could be started. The Western Casemated Battery is shown in a rare photograph next to the lighthouse keeper's residence on the bluff above the Fort.
The third project was approved in November 1870. The brick and concrete magazines were under earthen traverses that separated each pair of guns. The parapets were solid earth; the platforms were granite and concrete. Batteries were numbered beginning with 1 on the extreme east flank and proceeding to 63 on the southern end of the West Battery. This count included both cannon and mortar positions.
In accordance with the priorities outlined above, work began on the six-gun positions behind the Fort and the western parapets. By June 1872, the breast-height walls for twenty emplacements had been built and 8 front-pintle stones laid. A year later, the West Battery was completed. Twelve 15-inch Rodmans had been moved from the ordnance yard to the rear of their emplacements. Also, a ramp and a covered way had been built to connect the West and East Batteries. Still to be done was the laying of traverse rails and the construction of a platform for a 20-inch Rodman.
By October 1873, seven 15-inch Rodmans had been mounted on front-pintle platforms in the new batteries in the rear of Fort Point. A year later, a total of 12 guns had been mounted in the West Battery.
Construction of East Battery began in fiscal year 1873. By June, most of the parapet had been built, as well as parts of the magazines and five traverses. Construction continued at a favorable pace during the next two fiscal years. For fiscal year 1876, Congress appropriated only $25,000. Due to lack of funds, work came to a permanent halt on the Fort Point bluffs batteries. Years later, West Battery got to fire its guns once. West Battery was modified and demolished in later construction. The parapets and breast-height walls of Battery East have survived to a greater extent over the years. As far as it is known, no mortars were ever mounted at either battery. East Battery had five 15-inch Rodmans, and four 8-inch converted rifles mounted in 1897. In 1996, little remains of the West Battery and most of East Battery is still visible but covered with weeds and grass.
At Fort Point itself an inspection of the existing armament was made by Colonel Barton S. Alexander, Senior Engineer on the Pacific Coast, in April 1868. The following wide variety of armament was reported as mounted and unmounted:

Mounted

 Type of Cannon

 Quantity Mounted

 Quantity Unmounted
 8-inch Columbiads

 8
 
 10-inch Columbiads

 2
 
 42-pounder smoothbores

38  

 8
 32-pounder smoothbores

11
 
 24-pounder smoothbores

 6
 
 24-pounder Howitzers

 4
 
 10-inch siege mortars

 2
 
 24-pounder Coehorn mortars

 5
 
 15-inch Rodmans  

 25
 10-inch Rodmans  

 40
 300-pounder Parrott rifles  

 2
 200-pounder Parrott rifles  

 6
 8-pounder brass Spanish cannon  

 4
 10-inch siege guns  

 4

As is clear from this report, none of the "modern" post Civil War guns were mounted in Fort Point at this time. The Board of Engineers for the Pacific Coast recommended that the armament at Fort Point be replaced with 10-inch Rodmans and 200-pounder Parrott Rifles.
 
 

Available from Amazon
 
 
Other Online or Printed Histories
 
Harbor Defenses of San Francisco - A Field Guide 1890 to 1950
National Park Service
FortWiki
Wikipedia
Historic Resource Study, Seacoast Fortifications, San Francisco Harbor, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California
Forts of San Francisco
A Personal Account of the Coast Artillery in the Harbor Defenses of San Francisco during World War Two
Gun Batteries of San Francisco
Seacoast Fortifications Preservation Manual: Golden Gate National Recreation Area
San Francisco Defense Guns in World War II