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Fort Jay on Governors Island
Fort Jay on Governors Island
Max Touhey for Curbed

13 centuries-old NYC military forts you can still visit

These historic bunkers have been repurposed into museums, art installations, and more

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Fort Jay on Governors Island
| Max Touhey for Curbed

Today’s New Yorkers likely don’t think of their city as a stronghold of military operations, but starting around the time of the Revolutionary War and up through the War of 1812, many forts were constructed across the city in order to defend New York Harbor from the British. Later, a third wave of forts was built between 1817-1867 to guard the city's southern entrance (around the Narrows, dividing Staten Island and Brooklyn), which became ever more important during the Civil War.

And while the city continued to use many of these forts as military defenses in the 20th century, those that were decommissioned were repurposed into everything from a site for public-art projects to the base of the Statue of Liberty. In honor of Veterans Day, get the scoop on 13 historic forts that still exist today—and how you can check them out yourself.

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Fort Tilden National Park

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Long before it became a hipster beach destination, Fort Tilden was a US Army Artillery Post constructed in 1917 to protect New York Harbor during WWI. It was named in honor of former New York Governor Samuel J. Tilden. In 1941, when it became clear that the US was going to enter the war, as many as 1,000 men were stationed at Fort Tilden. During the Cold War in the mid-1950s, Fort Tilden was used as a Nike Missile installation site. In 1974, the Army transferred Fort Tilden to the the National Park Service’s Gateway Recreation Area. Today, Fort Tilden is not only a summer haven, but also the site of public art projects like MoMA's recent "Rockaway!" installation.

Victoria Belanger/Curbed Flickr Pool

Blockhouse #1

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Located on a hilltop in Central Park’s North Woods, BlockHouse No. 1 claims the distinction of being the park’s oldest structure. It was built as part of a series of fortifications in the summer of 1814 to defend against the British after they attacked Stonington, Connecticut. However, the Blockhouse (and the rest of New York’s forts built during this time) were never used in combat, as the Treaty of Ghent was signed a few months later, ending the War of 1812. Today, the the blockhouse is “empty, roofless, and securely locked.”

Wikimedia Commons

Fort Totten

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Fort Totten was built in 1862 to help defend New York Harbor during the Civil War. After the war, it served various other military functions, most recently as an Army Reserve post during the 1970s. In 1987, the US Department of Defense gifted 10 acres of the peninsula to the NYC Parks Department, and that land served as the basis of the park that would continue to grow into the 2000s. The park today is still home to a late 19th-century Gothic Revival castle, which originally used as an Officers’ Mess Hall and Club for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers School of Application. Today, it houses the Bayside Historical Society.

Wikimedia Commons

Fort Jay

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Fort Jay is the oldest defensive structure on Governors Island, and was constructed on the site of defensive earthworks built by Continental Troops from 1775-76. The island and the Fort were occupied by the British until 1783, when Fort Jay and several other buildings were finally surrendered to the Governor of New York. The star-shaped fort was finally completed in 1795, and named for New York Governor John Jay in 1798. During the Civil War, the fort was used as relatively comfortable prison accommodations for Confederate officers. Today, it's in the midst of an extensive restoration effort.

Castle Williams

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Located on the western point of Governors Island, Castle Williams was designed designed by Benjamin Franklin’s cousin Lt. Col John Williams, the chief engineer of the US Army Corps of Engineers. Completed in 1811, it was also a part of the Second American System. Like Fort Jay, Castle Williams was used as a Confederate prison, though it was overcrowded and disease ran rampant. In 1895, the fort was designated as one of 10 military prisons in the US, and became known as “Alcatraz East.” The Coast Guard took over the building in the late 1960s, and used the fort until the Guard left Governors Island in the mid-1990s.

Wikimedia Commons

Castle Clinton

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Battery Park’s Castle Clinton was also constructed to defend New York Harbor from the British. Originally named Southwest Battery, the fort was completed in 1811, though its 28 cannons were never fired during the War of 1812. The fort was renamed Castle Clinton in 1817 in honor of Dewitt Clinton, the mayor and late governor of New York. From 1823-1854, the fort was used as Castle Garden, an opera house and theater. In 1855, the fort became America’s first immigrant receiving center, welcoming 8.5 million immigrants until Ellis Island opened in 1892. But Castle Clinton was transformed yet again in 1896, as the New York City Aquarium (which moved to Coney Island in 1941). The building was saved from demolition in 1946, despite NYC Parks Commissioner Robert Moses calling it a “bombed-out gas tank,” and Castle Clinton National Monument opened in 1975. Today, the site houses the ticket office for the Statue of Liberty.

Audrey Levine

Fort Tryon

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Fort Tryon honors two Revolutionary War soldiers who fought in the November 1776 Battle of Fort Washington:General Sir William Tryon, who led the British to victory, and Margaret Corbin (for whom the Park’s Drive and entrance are named), the first woman to ever receive a military pension for her service to the Continental Army. After Corbin’s husband John was killed during the battle, she commandeered his cannon, and was the last to stop firing despite being severely wounded. In 1917, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., began purchasing some of the land in order to build a park overlooking the Hudson River and Palisades. He hired Frederick Olmsted Jr., the son of the designer of Central and Prospect Parks, to develop a plan; the park opened in 1935, and the Cloisters opened in 1938, after Rockefeller purchased a collection of medieval art. In addition to hosting an annual Medieval Festival, the park today claims the distinction of being home to Manhattan’s largest dog run.

Fort Schuyler

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The installation of the armament at the Bronx’s Fort Schuyler was completed in 1856, in order to close off the western end of the Long Island Sound from potential attacks. During the Civil War, Confederate prisoners of war were held at the fort, and the fort was also home to the McDougall General Hospital, which was destroyed in a fire. Today, Fort Schuyler is home to the Maritime Industry Museum on the campus of SUNY Maritime College. And yes, the fort is named for General Philip Schuyler—father to those Schuyler sisters. (Work!)

Library of Congress

Fort Wadsworth

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Staten Island's Fort Wadsworth is one of the oldest military sites in America, having been initially fortified by the British in 1779. During the War of 1812, Americans used the fort to guard the Narrows (between Staten Island and Brooklyn). The first permanent troops were stationed at the Fort during the Civil War. After WWI, the Fort was used as an army post, and it became the site of an Army Chaplain School from 1974-1979. After the army left the site, the fort became the headquarters of the Naval Station New York, and in 1994 it became the part of the Gateway National Recreation Area. The Coast Guard still uses some of the Fort’s buildings and housing.

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Fort Hamilton

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NYC's only remaining active-duty military post is Fort Hamilton, located at the southern tip of Brooklyn near Bay Ridge. The Fort was constructed in from 1825-1831 as part of the Third System Fortifications, and named in honor of the now überpopular Alexander Hamilton. During WWI and WWII, the Fort was used as a staging area for American troops who were deployed overseas. Fast forward a few decades, and members of the military at Fort Hamilton played an important role in relief efforts after the September 11 attacks and Hurricane Sandy in 2012. After Sandy, the Fort became a Base Support Installation, hosting organizations including the FBI and FEMA, who helped with relief efforts.

Library of Congress

Fort Wood

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Fort Wood was constructed on today’s Liberty Island in 1807 in order to defend the city from enemy assault. The 11-point fort was named after Eleazer Derby Wood, an officer who died in the War of 1812 during the Battle of Lake Erie. But now, the structure serves a rather different purpose: It was repurposed as the star-shaped base of the Statue of Liberty, and visitors to the tourist spot can still see it to this day.

Fort Gibson

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Fort Gibson was constructed on present-day Ellis Island in 1795, and was later named for Colonel James Gibson, who was killed at the siege of Fort Erie during the War of 1812. Fort Gibson was used as a garrison and POW camp during the War of 1812. The Fort closed in 1861, and used as an ammunition supply depot during the Civil War. In 1890, the site was selected as a new immigration station, which would become known as Ellis Island. Though most of the structure that once held the fort is now gone, some of its walls remain on Ellis Island.

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Fort Tilden National Park

Long before it became a hipster beach destination, Fort Tilden was a US Army Artillery Post constructed in 1917 to protect New York Harbor during WWI. It was named in honor of former New York Governor Samuel J. Tilden. In 1941, when it became clear that the US was going to enter the war, as many as 1,000 men were stationed at Fort Tilden. During the Cold War in the mid-1950s, Fort Tilden was used as a Nike Missile installation site. In 1974, the Army transferred Fort Tilden to the the National Park Service’s Gateway Recreation Area. Today, Fort Tilden is not only a summer haven, but also the site of public art projects like MoMA's recent "Rockaway!" installation.

Victoria Belanger/Curbed Flickr Pool

Blockhouse #1

Located on a hilltop in Central Park’s North Woods, BlockHouse No. 1 claims the distinction of being the park’s oldest structure. It was built as part of a series of fortifications in the summer of 1814 to defend against the British after they attacked Stonington, Connecticut. However, the Blockhouse (and the rest of New York’s forts built during this time) were never used in combat, as the Treaty of Ghent was signed a few months later, ending the War of 1812. Today, the the blockhouse is “empty, roofless, and securely locked.”

Wikimedia Commons

Fort Totten

Fort Totten was built in 1862 to help defend New York Harbor during the Civil War. After the war, it served various other military functions, most recently as an Army Reserve post during the 1970s. In 1987, the US Department of Defense gifted 10 acres of the peninsula to the NYC Parks Department, and that land served as the basis of the park that would continue to grow into the 2000s. The park today is still home to a late 19th-century Gothic Revival castle, which originally used as an Officers’ Mess Hall and Club for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers School of Application. Today, it houses the Bayside Historical Society.

Wikimedia Commons

Fort Jay

Fort Jay is the oldest defensive structure on Governors Island, and was constructed on the site of defensive earthworks built by Continental Troops from 1775-76. The island and the Fort were occupied by the British until 1783, when Fort Jay and several other buildings were finally surrendered to the Governor of New York. The star-shaped fort was finally completed in 1795, and named for New York Governor John Jay in 1798. During the Civil War, the fort was used as relatively comfortable prison accommodations for Confederate officers. Today, it's in the midst of an extensive restoration effort.

Castle Williams

Located on the western point of Governors Island, Castle Williams was designed designed by Benjamin Franklin’s cousin Lt. Col John Williams, the chief engineer of the US Army Corps of Engineers. Completed in 1811, it was also a part of the Second American System. Like Fort Jay, Castle Williams was used as a Confederate prison, though it was overcrowded and disease ran rampant. In 1895, the fort was designated as one of 10 military prisons in the US, and became known as “Alcatraz East.” The Coast Guard took over the building in the late 1960s, and used the fort until the Guard left Governors Island in the mid-1990s.

Wikimedia Commons

Castle Clinton

Battery Park’s Castle Clinton was also constructed to defend New York Harbor from the British. Originally named Southwest Battery, the fort was completed in 1811, though its 28 cannons were never fired during the War of 1812. The fort was renamed Castle Clinton in 1817 in honor of Dewitt Clinton, the mayor and late governor of New York. From 1823-1854, the fort was used as Castle Garden, an opera house and theater. In 1855, the fort became America’s first immigrant receiving center, welcoming 8.5 million immigrants until Ellis Island opened in 1892. But Castle Clinton was transformed yet again in 1896, as the New York City Aquarium (which moved to Coney Island in 1941). The building was saved from demolition in 1946, despite NYC Parks Commissioner Robert Moses calling it a “bombed-out gas tank,” and Castle Clinton National Monument opened in 1975. Today, the site houses the ticket office for the Statue of Liberty.

Audrey Levine

Fort Tryon

Fort Tryon honors two Revolutionary War soldiers who fought in the November 1776 Battle of Fort Washington:General Sir William Tryon, who led the British to victory, and Margaret Corbin (for whom the Park’s Drive and entrance are named), the first woman to ever receive a military pension for her service to the Continental Army. After Corbin’s husband John was killed during the battle, she commandeered his cannon, and was the last to stop firing despite being severely wounded. In 1917, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., began purchasing some of the land in order to build a park overlooking the Hudson River and Palisades. He hired Frederick Olmsted Jr., the son of the designer of Central and Prospect Parks, to develop a plan; the park opened in 1935, and the Cloisters opened in 1938, after Rockefeller purchased a collection of medieval art. In addition to hosting an annual Medieval Festival, the park today claims the distinction of being home to Manhattan’s largest dog run.

Fort Schuyler

The installation of the armament at the Bronx’s Fort Schuyler was completed in 1856, in order to close off the western end of the Long Island Sound from potential attacks. During the Civil War, Confederate prisoners of war were held at the fort, and the fort was also home to the McDougall General Hospital, which was destroyed in a fire. Today, Fort Schuyler is home to the Maritime Industry Museum on the campus of SUNY Maritime College. And yes, the fort is named for General Philip Schuyler—father to those Schuyler sisters. (Work!)

Library of Congress

Fort Wadsworth

Staten Island's Fort Wadsworth is one of the oldest military sites in America, having been initially fortified by the British in 1779. During the War of 1812, Americans used the fort to guard the Narrows (between Staten Island and Brooklyn). The first permanent troops were stationed at the Fort during the Civil War. After WWI, the Fort was used as an army post, and it became the site of an Army Chaplain School from 1974-1979. After the army left the site, the fort became the headquarters of the Naval Station New York, and in 1994 it became the part of the Gateway National Recreation Area. The Coast Guard still uses some of the Fort’s buildings and housing.

Shutterstock.com

Fort Hamilton

NYC's only remaining active-duty military post is Fort Hamilton, located at the southern tip of Brooklyn near Bay Ridge. The Fort was constructed in from 1825-1831 as part of the Third System Fortifications, and named in honor of the now überpopular Alexander Hamilton. During WWI and WWII, the Fort was used as a staging area for American troops who were deployed overseas. Fast forward a few decades, and members of the military at Fort Hamilton played an important role in relief efforts after the September 11 attacks and Hurricane Sandy in 2012. After Sandy, the Fort became a Base Support Installation, hosting organizations including the FBI and FEMA, who helped with relief efforts.

Library of Congress

Fort Wood

Fort Wood was constructed on today’s Liberty Island in 1807 in order to defend the city from enemy assault. The 11-point fort was named after Eleazer Derby Wood, an officer who died in the War of 1812 during the Battle of Lake Erie. But now, the structure serves a rather different purpose: It was repurposed as the star-shaped base of the Statue of Liberty, and visitors to the tourist spot can still see it to this day.

Fort Gibson

Fort Gibson was constructed on present-day Ellis Island in 1795, and was later named for Colonel James Gibson, who was killed at the siege of Fort Erie during the War of 1812. Fort Gibson was used as a garrison and POW camp during the War of 1812. The Fort closed in 1861, and used as an ammunition supply depot during the Civil War. In 1890, the site was selected as a new immigration station, which would become known as Ellis Island. Though most of the structure that once held the fort is now gone, some of its walls remain on Ellis Island.