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Queens, New York is Home to a Hidden Civil War Fort

Originally designed to defend the East River, Fort Totten is now open to the public.

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  • Photo Credit: New York City Department of Parks & Recreation

What does a building designed by Robert E. Lee have to do with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers insignia? More than you might think.

Fort Totten is a stunning piece of land located along the Cross Island Parkway between Totten Avenue and 15th Road in Queens, New York. It's actually an abandoned Civil War fort—hidden in plain sight. 

Related: 10 Civil War Battles That Shaped America's Bloodiest Conflict

Fort Totten is even on the MTA subway map, though it’s partially obscured by the legend explaining the meaning of various symbols on the map. The relatively unknown city park is located in the Bay Terrace area of Queens. As a military installation, construction began in 1862 to protect New York against Confederate ships approaching from the East River. 

Civil War History

Fort Totten was initially called the Fort at Willets Point. The government purchased the land from the Willets family in 1857, and changed the name to Fort Totten in 1898. The original intent of Fort Totten was to defend the East River and to add auxiliary support to Fort Schuyler in the Bronx, which also faces the East River. The initial design was created by Robert E. Lee in 1857, four years before the outbreak of the Civil War would prompt New York to use the fort to defend itself against the Confederate Army. The fort's design was modified by Chief Engineer Joseph G. Totten, where the installation got its name.

Related: Grant and Twain: How Two American Icons Relived the War in Literature 

Fort Totten was designed with four tiers of cannons facing the water, for a total of 68 defensive guns. The only other installations in the U.S. to share this feature are Castle Williams on Governors Island, Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island, and Fort Point in San Francisco. 

Construction on Fort Totten was abandoned after the Civil War, in part because masonry forts were considered obsolete after the war. Only one tier and part of a second tier of the two seacoast walls were completed.

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  • "The Battery"—where the guns were to be installed according to Lee's design. 

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

WWI and onward 

When the United States entered WWI, coastal defensive installations got an upgrade. Because threats from German ships seemed unlikely in the East River, this installation became a mobilization and training center. Garrisons were reduced to provide trained heavy artillery crews for the Western Front, and many of Fort Totten's weapons were repurposed.

In 1935, Fort Totten’s last heavy armament, the mortars of Battery King, were removed, and the Harbor Defenses of Eastern New York were inactivated. 

Related: Peter Conover Hains: The Civil War Veteran Who Served All the Way up to WWI 

In December 1941, Fort Totten became the headquarters for the anti-aircraft portion of the Eastern Defense Command. Then in 1954, the installation became an air defense site for Project Nike, which focused on developing line-of-sight anti-aircraft missiles. No Nike missiles were located at Fort Totten, but it was the regional headquarters for the New York area. By 1966, it was home to the 1st Region, Army Air Defense Command. It also headquartered the 66th Anti-Aircraft Missile Battalion and the 41st AAA Gun Battalion. 

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  • "The Castle"—which is now home to the Bayside Historical Society. 

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Currently, the 77th Sustainment Brigade, subordinate units, and the 533rd Brigade Support Battalion of the U.S. Army Reserve call Fort Totten home. But most of the installation is a public park that offers tours. Interesting landmarks include Cold War-era buildings, such as a movie theater, a former officer’s quarters, a laboratory, and a hospital. With most of the Civil War-era buildings in ruins, the entire area has a spooky frozen-in-time feel, especially if you’ve never seen any old military ruins.

Related: 19 Essential Civil War Books

In the middle of the park is a building called "the Castle," which was once the Fort Totten Officer’s Club. Now it’s home to the Bayside Historical Society. The Castle hosts historical exhibitions, cultural programs, and other events. In 1986, the Castle was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Like the rest of the Civil War buildings in Fort Totten, the Castle was likely designed by Robert E. Lee in his pre-Civil War capacity as a military engineer. However, some historians suspect that Lee didn’t actually design it himself, and just signed off on the plans. 

Designed in a neo-Gothic style, the Castle wasn’t created specifically for Fort Totten, but was the approved generic design for use in all military installations during the mid-19th century. Identical structures could be found at installations around the country during that time, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers eventually adopted the design as their insignia.