Fort Point

From Academic Kids

Fort Point is a location at the south entrance to San Francisco Bay. Here, during the U.S. Civil War, a fort was built to defend the Straits of the Golden Gate against passage of hostile warships. While it was not expected that ships of the Confederacy would enter here there was some considerable concern that a potential European ally (particularly the maritime forces of the United Kingdom) might attempt to capture the port of San Francisco.

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The entrance to San Francisco Bay has long been the site of human habitation. The earliest residents of the area, ancestors of the Ohlone and Miwok peoples, depended on the bay's waters for food and transportation. There is evidence from about 4,000 years ago of an Ohlone village located about a mile from Fort Point along the shore.

The Castillo de San Joaquin

In 1769 Gasper de Portola's overland expedition reached San Francisco Bay. By 1776 Spain had established the area's first European settlement, with a mission and a presidio (military post). Fearful of encroachment by the British and Russians, Spain fortified the high white cliff at the narrowest part of the bay's entrance, where Fort Point now stands. The Castillo de San Joaquin, built in 1794, was an adobe streucture housing nine to 13 cannon. The little fortress guarded the Spanish colony until 1821, when Mexico won independence from Spain and gained control of the region.

In 1835 the Mexican army moved to Sonoma and the castillo's adobe walls were left to crumble in the wind and rain. War broke out between Meixco and the United States in 1846. On July 1, U.S. Army officer John Charles Fremont, along with Kit Carson and a band of 10 followers, stormed the castillo and spiked the cannons. They discovered that the fortress was empty.

After then United States prevailed in the war against Mexico in 1848, California was ceded to the U.S. The gold strike that year at Sutter's Mill on the American River lured tens of thousands of prospectors. Most of the "Fortyniners" arrived by sea, making San Francisco the major West Coast harbor as of 1849. When California became the 31st state in 1850, the U.S. Army and Navy officials recommended a series of fortifications to secure San Francisco Bay. Coastal defenses were built at Alcatraz, Fort Mason, and Fort Point.

Fort Pont and the Civil War

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began work on Fort Point in 1853. Plans specified that the lowest tier of artillery be as close as possble to water level so cannonballs could ricochet across the water's surface to hit enemy ships at the water-line. Workers blasted the 90-foot cliff down to 15 feet above sea level. The structure featured seven-foot-thick walls and multi-tiered casemated construction typical of Third System forts. It was sited to defend the maximum amount of harbor area. While there were more than 30 such forts on the East Coast, Fort Point was the only one on the West Coast. In 1854 Inspector General Joseph F.K. Mansfield declared "this point as the key to the whole Pacific Coast...and it should be receive untiring exertions.

A crew of 200, many unemployed miners, labored for eight years on the fort. In 1861, with war looming, the Army mounted the fort's first cannon. Col. Albert Sidney Johnston, commander of the Department of the Pacific, prepared Bay Area defenses and ordered in the first troops to the fort. Kentucky-born Johnston then resigned his commision to join the Confederate Army; he was killed at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862.

Throughout the Civil War, artillerymen at Fort Point stood guard for an enemy that never came. The Confederate raider CSS Shenandoah planned to attack San Francisco, but on the way to the harbor the captain learned that the war was over; it was August 1865.

Severe damage to similar forts on the Atlantic Coast during the war - Fort Sumter in South Carolina and Fort Pulaski in Georgia - challenged the effectiveness of masonry walls against rifled artillery. Troops soon moved out of Fort Point, and it was never again continuously occupied by the Army. The fort was nonetheless important enough to receive protection from the elements. In 1869 a granite seawall was completed. The following year, some of the fort's cannon were moved to Battery East on the bluffs nearby, where they were more protected. In 1882 Fort Point was officially named Fort Winfield Scott after the famous hero from the war against Mexico. The name never caught on and was later applied to an artillery post the Presidio.

Into a New Century

In 1892 the Army began constructing the new Endicott System concrete fortifications armed with steel, breech-loading rifled guns. Within eight years, all 102 of the smooth-bore cannons at Fort Point had been dismounted and sold for scrap. The fort, moderately damaged in the 1906 earthquake, was used over the next four decades for barracks, training, and storage. Soldiers from the 6th U.S. Coast Artillery were stationed there during World War II to guard minefields and the anti-submarine net that spanned the Golden Gate.

Preserving Fort Point

In 1926 the [[American Institute of Architects proposed preserving the fort for its outstanding military architecture. Funds were unavailable, and the ideas languished. Plans for the Golden Gate Bridge in the 1930s called for the fort's removal, but Chief Engineer Joseph Strauss redesigned the bridge to save the fort. "While the old fort has no military value now," Strauss said, "it remains nevertheless a fine example of the mason's art.... It should be preserved and restored as a national monument."

Preservation efforts were revived after World War II. On October 16, 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the bill creating Fort Point National Historic Site. The fort tells the story of its years spent guarding the Golden Gate.

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