Exploring Fort Totten, NYC’s Civil War-Era Fort

We enjoyed visiting Suomenlinna, a sea fortress in Helsinki, Finland a few weeks ago, but shortly after we returned to NYC, we had the opportunity to visit one of New York’s historic forts, too! This was none other than Fort Totten, which is located on the waterfront in Bayside, Queens. Though not as large as Suomenlinna, Fort Totten has its own share of secret nooks and crannies. Not all of Fort Totten is open to the public, but we joined a New York Adventure Club tour and were able to get special access to some of the fort’s off-limits spaces and places!

History of Fort Totten

Built in 1862, Fort Totten is a Civil War-era fort located across the water from Fort Schuyler in the Bronx. The two forts sit where the East River and Long Island Sound meet, and the idea at the time was that any invaders approaching from the Sound would be prevented from entering the East River for an attack on NYC.

Originally called the Fort at Willets Point, it did not receive the name Fort Totten until 1898, named in honor of Joseph Gilbert Totten, who was Chief Engineer of the U.S. Army for about 30 years. Robert E. Lee had actually created the original designs for the fort in 1857, but Totten made modifications to the design once construction had actually commenced. Though it was intended to be four stories tall, the fort only made it to about one and a half floors for reasons I’ll explain later!

The military had mostly departed Fort Totten in the 70s, but the U.S. Army Reserve, along with the NYPD and FDNY,  still actively use the base. However, the property is actually now owned by the City of New York and used primarily as a public park.

How to Get to Fort Totten

Fort Totten is pretty far north in Queens, and you’ll either need to drive or take the bus since there aren’t any nearby train stations. You are not permitted to drive your car onsite since Fort Totten is still an active base, but there is a fairly sizeable public parking lot right outside the gate. We visited on a dreary day in October and the lot was surprisingly crowded, so if you plan to visit on a busier summer day, be prepared to look for street parking in case the lot is already full.

If you take the bus, the Q13 and Q16 both terminate at the Fort Totten/Cross Island Parkway stop, which is also just outside the base’s gate. Whether you arrive by car or bus, the walk to the Visitors Center will take you about 10-15 minutes, most of which is slightly uphill. There are signs that mark the path, and in the summertime, there is often a shuttle that you can take instead.

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The entry gate at Fort Totten – the silver ball is an old floating naval mine!
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While you’re trekking up the hill to the Visitors Center, you’re at least treated to some pretty fantastic views! That’s the Throgs Neck Bridge you see there.

The Visitors Center & Water Battery

When we arrived for our tour, we were able to wander around the Visitors Center for a bit to enjoy the exhibits and photographs they had on display before we got started. Shortly after, we were greeted by the three NYC park rangers who lead our tour, and they gave us a brief history of the fort. And then the fun began!

We set out to visit the Water Battery, but we first stopped behind the Visitors Center at a structure that was once used as a storage area at the fort. Sitting just outside one of the storage spaces was a replica of a cannon that would have once been onsite at Fort Totten. None of the original cannons are still onsite, but the replica did at least help to give us a sense of scale.

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The building on the right is the Visitors Center, and you can see the line of storage bays built into the hillside behind it.

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A replica of the type of cannon that would have once been at Fort Totten (you can actually see a much smaller cannon on the ground in the background – that one IS real!)

To get to the Water Battery, we had to go through a tunnel, which was built in 1870 after the fort had been constructed. When you look into the tunnel, you’ll notice that you can’t actually see all the way through it because it is built both on a slope and with an angle. This was useful in the event of an attack since it would prevent any attackers approaching from the water from being able to see what and, more importantly, who was at the other end of the tunnel. In our case, though, things seemed pretty safe, so we bravely ventured through and back in time…

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Notice you can’t see all the way through the tunnel. It turns off to the left and then downhill.
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From the lower end of the tunnel, you also can’t see who might be waiting for you up at the top!

As we neared the end of the tunnel, ranger Michelle pointed out another interesting feature in the tunnel. In 1898, about 36 years after the tunnel was built, the U.S. battleship Maine was destroyed in an explosion near Havana. The American people, thinking this was the handiwork of Spain, demanded that something be done and the phrase, “Remember the Maine” was the rallying cry. Soon after, the U.S. entered the Spanish-American War. Here at Fort Totten, soldiers remembered the Maine themselves by applying a bit of graffiti to the walls of the tunnel, making this some of the oldest graffiti you’ll find in NYC!

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Some realllly old graffiti!

Finally, we reached the end of the tunnel and we found ourselves at the Water Battery. This place is amazing! The battery is made of granite and bluestone, and you can see just how big each of these giant chunks of rock actually are. On the floor, we could just barely see the outline of a metal track a cannon would have once rotated along, and we admired the view of Fort Schuyler through one of the open windows. We also noticed some of the many stalactites and stalagmites forming on the floors and ceiling, which is the result of the battery never having gotten a proper roof!

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The view from inside the Water Battery
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See all the stalactites and stalagmites growing inside the Water Battery?

So, why DID they stop building Fort Totten, you ask? Well, dear reader, in the old days cannons just shot cannonballs, and Fort Totten’s design was such that it could withstand an assault from these. However, in the middle of building Fort Totten, a new type of conical-shaped cannon projectile gained popularity. And as it turns out, this new ammunition did A LOT more damage to forts such as Fort Totten, essentially making their design obsolete. 

And so, rather than making the Water Battery its intended four stories, it was instead left unfinished in the middle of building the second floor. The rangers actually showed us a wall on the second floor where this new rifled artillery was tested out. You can see the damage it did to the wall, and you can even still see bits of shot that got lodged inside!

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This spiral staircase leads up to the second level
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You can see here where the construction just ended

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The results of testing out the more “modern” artillery
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Bits of shot stuck in the wall!

Next, we visited a couple different places where ammunition was once stored. The first looked like a pizza oven from the outside. Inside, it was a circular space all made of brick. The idea was that if there was an explosion, the ceiling would collapse inward and help to extinguish any fires (while also preventing the rest of the fort from taking on too much damage).

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Inside this space is a circular room where ammunition would have been stored.
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In the event of an explosion, this ceiling was designed to collapse inward to extinguish any fires.

The second ammunition storage area is the first not-normally-open-to-the-public place we visited on our tour. We walked over toward the end of the second level and came upon a very rusty door that was built into the hillside. The rangers unlocked the doors and our little group ventured in with flashlight apps at the ready.

This chamber was built in 1870 at the same time as the tunnel we had come through at the beginning of the tour. During the Spanish-American War, this space was mostly used for storing floating naval mines, and it had even been a designated fallout shelter at one point.

It’s also one of the few places in NYC where you will find absolute silence and absolute darkness! We all turned our lights off and stood quietly for about 20 seconds, and I can attest to the fact that is realllly dark and quiet in there! It’s actually very disorientating when you can’t hear or see anything, especially in NYC where you’re assaulted by noise and images and light ALL THE TIME.

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The Water Battery as seen from the second level
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Ooooo, what do we have here???
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I felt like I was in an episode of Lost heading through these doors…
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Fairly anti-climactic inside – it’s basically just a couple empty rooms!

At this point, the rangers mentioned we had just one more stop, which would be the second not-normally-open-to-the-public place we got to visit on the tour: the Endicott Battery.

The Endicott Battery

We worked our way back up the tunnel and up to a gate above the Visitors Center. From there, we walked along a short path (that was lined with poison ivy, btw, just in case you ever come here in shorts) and reached another locked gate. At first, we couldn’t really see anything, but once we passed through the gate, a couple bits of a structure started to peek out from behind the trees.

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And that structure is Fort Totten’s Endicott Battery, which was built in the 1890s. Despite being a few decades younger than the Water Battery, it’s actually in far worse condition, primarily due to the fact that it was made out of concrete as opposed to the much heartier granite and bluestone that had been used at the Water Battery.

We wandered down the long outer corridor and then visited a few rooms under the watchful eye of the rangers. Inside, we were able to see some of the old equipment that still remains at the battery. First, we saw a lift mechanism that would have been used to raise and lower ammunition from between the battery’s two floors. Next, we saw a super old school machine that would have been used for remote detonation (though was never actually needed). Crazy to think that this technology has been around for so long!

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Those braces would be loaded up and the chain and gear system would be used to raise the load.
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Seriously old school remote-detonation technology

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Before leaving, we were able to carefully climb up to the second level of the battery where we saw the outline of a hole that once held one of three “disappearing guns”. The idea was that a gun could be mounted on a platform that would be raised and lowered. Upon shooting, the gun would ‘disappear’ and the enemy wouldn’t know where the shot had come from.

Fort Totten never had occasion to use this battery for such a purpose, and as you can see, it was basically left to deteriorate and now the hole is overgrown with weeds and trees and brush. (The Army supposedly also never tested the disappearing guns because they were afraid that they would blast out all the windows if they had!)

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The second level of the Endicott Battery
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You can’t really tell, but this is actually a big hole filled with a whole lot of overgrowth now.

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And then, we climbed back down the stairs and headed back to the Visitors Center to get one last look of the photos on display before wrapping up our tour. The fort is such a cool place to see and explore, and getting to check out some of the off-limits areas was definitely a treat!

You can visit the Water Battery on your own anytime Fort Totten’s Visitor Center is open, but if you want to see the places normally closed to the public, you’ll need to join the New York Adventure Club tour or keep an eye on Fort Totten’s calendar for any other opportunities they may have that provide special access.

You can also catch glimpses of Fort Totten in movies and TV shows. I personally remember seeing the Water Battery in an episode of White Collar, but it has also had cameos in other shows like Person of Interest and The Americans. The rangers also mentioned that Game of Thrones used the water Battery for a promotional event leading up to their final season.

I hope you’ll get a chance to visit Fort Totten sometime, and if you’ve already been, please let me know what you think of this very unique piece of NYC history!

Plan Your Own Visit

Where to Go

  • Fort Totten: Totten Ave. & 15th Rd, Bayside, NY 11359
  • You cannot take the bus or drive all the way to the Visitors Center. You will need to take the bus to the gate or park in the free public lot near the gate and then walk to the Visitors Center.

When to Go

  • If you want to visit the parts of Fort Totten that are normally closed to the public, you’ll need to join a New York Adventure Club tour. Check their calendar for upcoming tours!
  • Otherwise, the park is open daily, typically from 6:00 am – 9:00 pm. However, the Water Battery can only be accessed via the Visitors Center, which is NOT open daily.
  • The Visitors Center is only open on the weekends during the off-season and Wednesday-Sunday during the summertime. Check the website or call for current hours before you visit.
  • You may also want to visit during a special event

Tips for Visiting

  • Fort Totten is used by the NYPD and FDNY, as well as the U.S. Army Reserve, so only approved personnel can drive through the gates at Fort Totten. Give yourself 10-15 minutes to walk up the hill from the gate to the Visitors Center. There is also sometimes a free shuttle you can take in the summertime.
  • If you’re not taking a guided tour, stop in at the Visitors Center to view their exhibits. There are some great photos, and the information here will help give you some background on what you’ll see outside.
  • Fort Totten is on the water, making it a very chilly place to visit in the wintertime. In the event of inclement weather, call in advance to ensure that everything will be open when you wish to visit.
  • If you want to visit the parts of Fort Totten that are off-limits, join a New York Adventure Club tour! Remember to wear sensible footwear, and if you visit in the summertime, you might want to wear long pants, as poison ivy grows near the trail.

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