Fort Tilden's secluded beauty remains marred by the remnants of Hurricane Sandy. Federal officials have determined that the broken metal and concrete debris from the ruined Shore Road make the area too hazardous for beachgoers. Visiting the area last month with my friend, a Rockaway native, we didn't see another person all day.
A small cluster of multi-use facilities sits at the entrance of the park, including repurposed barracks housing the Rockaway Artists Alliance. Most of the buildings are unused, but two host a summer day camp called Camp Kidsmart and a local theater company. A domed wrought iron gate divides the semi-active buildings from the abandoned ones. My friend tells me a few years ago a local girl found a dead man hanging from it (certainly the park is not unfamiliar with death).
Before Sandy, there was an open mic every Thursday night, with locals pouring out of the building into the back garden area. One of the long-unused warehouses had a library of paperbacks with a secret garden still full of mosaics and shrines of curios, toilet bowls full of weeds and plant strung together and hung from trees. Now the wooden structures are battered and damp, the remains of the library balled in wet clumps of paper on the floor, the garden fallow in the brush. They've been untouched by cleanup efforts, local haunts not easily restored by out-of-borough volunteers.
As we approached the main fortress, the scent of fresh paint intensified. The entire barrack had recently been given a coat of dark blue—a real pity, because that building used to be covered in runes and graffiti dating as far back as the First World War. Soldiers etched their names into the stone next to long strips of symbols that could be mistaken for hieroglyphics.
Isolated on the Atlantic shore, Fort Tilden now begs protection from the rising tides and escalating storms, but once it protected New York. Established in 1917 and named for one term governor and failed presidential candidate of 1876, Samuel, J. Tilden, the fort was built during World War I as a fortification of the Rockaway Peninsula.
Constructed to defend the New York Harbor from sea or air attack, it consisted of two batteries, both of which remain today. It was the base of Naval Air Station Rockaway, and the departure point for the first transatlantic flight. After the war, a small caretaker dispatch was left to maintain the buildings until June 1, 1941, when the battlements were flooded once more by 1,000 men—more barracks and support buildings had to be constructed to accommodate the troops.
During the Second World War, Battery Harris, the largest structure at Fort Tilden, was casemated to protect from aerial bombings, and an overhead trolley system was outfitted on the ceiling to transport heavy artillery shells to the guns.
The end of World War II saw the abolishment of the Coast Artillery Corps, and so in 1946 46 of Fort Tilden's barracks were converted into 350 apartments for veterans and their families. During the Cold War in 1951, the barracks saw action once again, becoming the home of the 69th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion, bringing in more men and a lot of guns. When anti-aircraft guns became outdated, missiles were brought in: first Nike Ajax, then Nike Hercules, which defended the city's skies from 1959 to 1974. With the end of Nike Hercules came the end of Fort Tilden's military career; the base was deactivated and became a part of the Gateway National Recreational Area in 1974.
Today, there's an observatory deck on top of Battery Harris East, a historic gun site that used to house 70 foot cannons shooting 2,300 pound shells 25 miles out to sea. It is a popular destination for bird watchers. Many of the barracks, bunkers, and underground artillery shelters still dot the grounds, albeit gutted and covered in covered in decade's worth of graffiti.
These smaller outbuildings can be difficult to find, hidden off the main path and lost to vegetation (in the winter months, the spray paint on their facades makes them easier to spot in the dead brush). There are no directional signs or plaques explaining the place's history, nothing to remind visitors that this was once home to the 187th infantry brigades and the largest cannon ever employed (a 16 bore); only occasional reports of unexploded ordnance found on the grounds hint towards the fort's military past.
Hannah Frishberg is a 5th generation Brooklynite. Earlier this month she wrote about Red Hook's giant grain elevator.