California State Military Department
The California State Military Museum
Preserving California's Military Heritage
Historic California Posts:
Fort at Fort Point
(Fort Point, Fort Winfield Scott)
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thing that detracted from the glorious success: Fort San Joaquin was completely undefended, the garrison having been withdrawn more than a quarter of a century before.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 By 1836, however, all regular troops had been withdrawn, and San Joaquin had nothing to prevent it from washing away.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.
 
 
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."
 

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.
 

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 HERE
 
Recommended reading on the history of the harbor defenses of San Francisco:
 
Chin, Brian
Artillery at the Golden Gate: the Harbor Defenses of San Francisco in WW II
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.
Alcatraz, Island of Change
Golden Gate National Park Association, San Francisco, CA 1991
 
Martini, John A.
Fort Point, Sentry at the Golden Gate
Golden Gate National Park Association, San Francisco, CA 1991
 
Martini, John A.
Fortress 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
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