Monday, February 15, 2021

Fort Point National Historic Site, San Francisco

The Civil War-Era Fort under the Golden Gate Bridge

Did you know that there was a Civil War-era fort under the Golden Gate Bridge? I realize that at times I can be slow on the uptake, but I didn’t know about Fort Point until just a few years ago. And I grew up in California! How could I not notice? I’ve driven over the bridge several times in my life. The first time way back in high school. When I was in the army, I even flew a helicopter from Camp Roberts to the Presidio in San Francisco – didn’t notice it then. Finally, Fort Point came on the radar several years ago when I visited the Presidio as a tourist. Who knew? 

The history of the site goes back to the late 1700s. The Spanish were worried about encroachment into California by Russia and Great Britain. They built a fort on a cliff at the southern point of the narrowest entry to the bay. That would later be known as the “Golden Gate.” The fort, Castillo de San Joaquin, was completed in 1794, was made of adobe walls, and mounted from 9 to 13 cannons. When Mexico gained independence from Spain, the Mexican army moved to Sonoma and let the fort deteriorate.

At some point during the Spanish and Mexican eras, the cliff that the fort was located on was known as the Punta del Cantil Blanco (point of the white cliff) became known as Punta del Castillo (Castle Point). After the Mexican-American war and the United States gained control of California in 1848, the name was carried over as “Fort Point.” Soon the Gold Rush was in full swing, California became a state in 1850, and the United States now needed to protect the bay. A series of defensive fortifications were proposed that included Alcatraz Island, Fort Mason (located adjacent to Fisherman’s Wharf), and Fort Point.

The construction on Fort Point began in 1853. The first task was to knock down the cliff and build the fort near sea level. The idea was that guns placed in the first level of the fort could skip cannonballs along the ocean and hit ships at the waterline. Two hundred former gold miners were employed on the construction of the fort for eight years, finishing it in time to be garrisoned just before the start of the American Civil War in 1861. The fort is constructed with seven-foot-thick walls and three levels, or tiers, that built with a reinforcing arch. The fort could aim 126 guns at any ship passing through the narrow Golden Gate, although during the Civil War there were only 55.

Fort Point never fired a shot in anger. Time and technology made the fort obsolete. Navies of the world moved on to ships made of iron and steel. By the 1890s the smoothbore cannons at Fort Point were scrapped in favor of rifled, larger, coast artillery emplaced in concrete batteries at Fort Winfield Scott on the west side of the Presidio. Fort Point was used as a barracks for a time until it fell into disrepair. Recommendations to have the fort demolished in the 1920s were turned down. The fort was left standing even as the Golden Gate Bridge was built over it in the 1930s. After World War II, efforts were made to preserve the fort. In October of 1970, President Nixon declared Fort Point a National Historic Site.

Read complete histories of Fort Point at the National Park Service website, the Presidio San Francisco website, or on Wikipedia.

Fort Point is well worth the trip alone. But certainly, be sure to put it on your itinerary when you plan a trip to San Francisco. I enjoyed it more than exploring the coastal artillery batteries at the Presidio. Those coastal defenses built in the early twentieth century are common. I’ve also visited them at the mouth of the Columbia River and protecting the entrance to the Puget Sound. But on the west coast, Fort Point is the only one of its kind. There are no other Civil War-era forts, well preserved, on the west coast. I was fascinated by the architecture of the fort and the technology for the time that it was built. During the summer months there might be living historians or reenactor groups at the fort. Check with the NPS website. Oh, and bring a jacket. You know the old joke: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” 😎

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